The end of August saw us preparing for our usual trip to Atlanta for DragonCon and Wolf Fest. We struck off towards Mississippi, where we switched vehicles, riding all night to arrive early morning in Atlanta, around 5 a.m., I think. Minutes later, two other friends, Katy and Zach, came. We roused whoever would get up and walked to a nearby restaurant for breakfast.
At that moment, we felt good; being with friends that are as close as a family does that. Checking into our room, I discovered that Bobby was our neighbor, a godsend, I learned later.
Unfortunately, the good feeling didn’t last long, with the return of the shakes and anxiety for both of us. Walking out of the building set aside for vendors, the crowd seemed to rush forward, closing in on me and the edges of my vision going blurry as tunnel vision set in. I had to clear out of there, escaping the Westin lobby bar for some breathing room. That did help for a while, until another emotion came boiling to the surface.
I hated everyone, and I didn’t know why, which made me even madder. Bobby noticed, pulling me aside to check on me. This was a new mood for me, a really dark place that I wanted out of. What it took to get me out of it was irony, which made me laugh; we were accidentally left behind.
What had happened was that we were leaving one of the host hotels after midnight when the crowd got between us and the others. Hurrying to catch up, we raced outside, expecting to find them waiting. No one was there. I had seen how this works before. When Bobby inevitably discovers someone isn’t there, he goes on the hunt. He is very good at it too, good enough to set a time and be back before the deadline. So we waited for the five minutes it usually takes for him to show up. Nothing.
Ok then, Plan B: head to the Westin where we usually meet. Empty. Plan C, how to get through a mile and a half of bad neighborhoods to our hotel. To give you an idea of how bad, we had seen a crackhead wandering around during the day—no way was I walking that without at least five other guys I trusted. That was new to me, maybe not to you.
Luckily, a line of cabs was waiting alongside the hotel, so we had a ride back to our hotel. I was sure we had beaten them back to the place because I assumed they had walked, except when I glanced at the patio, they were all there.
It had been a shitty day. When we packed, apparently, the mental baggage came too. The irony considering his past actions in conjunction with my dark mood, I walked up with a particularly cutting remark to my best friend.
“What happened to we all stick together?”
It was an admittedly asshole comment that hurt him, his face falling. It wasn’t cool. I consider him my big brother, who is always there when I need him. He’d cut his vacation short after the accident, on his arm is one of my quotes, and when it comes to defense and reading people, I learned a lot from him. It is easy to see him as larger than life. However, we are all human, and he had been awake for almost two days straight at that point.
After sitting down, my wife decided she wanted a drink. Oh joy. She is a lightweight, so it wasn’t long before she was drunk and refusing to go to our room to sleep it off until she had one more. I was worried she was going to get alcohol poisoning, and nothing I was doing was convincing her to stop for the night, so I texted Bobby, hoping he was still awake.
He arrived with a plan I hadn’t considered: get her the drink, just water it down. It worked, and he stayed with us, talking from the bed while I got her into the tub. I walked back into the room, talking to him when I heard a splash and…bubbles?
I raced back in to see she passed out. She was slipping under the water till I pulled her up, so I stayed in there talking through the wall. Then it got quiet. Stopping mid-sentence, I looked in to see him sprawled asleep across the bed. Sleep finally ambushed him, so I took a picture of him sleeping and sent it to his wife before leaving him there while we slept.
A good night’s sleep helped. I woke to find Bobby gone, so I drank all the hotel room coffee. Wanting more, I intended to go to the hotel dining room, when Bobby texted me from there. We met up down there, eating while everyone slept, enjoying another rambling conversation between us.
That Saturday started better than Friday was. Much calmer and pretty much in a neutral state, I just watched our group, not saying much to anyone. When I get quiet like that, I’m processing something; at that time, it was the body language of those around me, the underlying message to what people were saying.
It was a stressful day for most, an almost mourning type atmosphere since Wicked Jester was going to see a changing of the guard; who to take the reins was up to us to decide. In the scope of the book, this doesn’t seem necessary, but I highlight it to show where my mind was at the time.
We chose based on a secret ballot, and throughout the day, we had acquired coins, which added up to one coin equaling one vote. Rules stated you could use half of them to vote for yourself; it would be foolish not to, we were told. I voted for myself…once; the rest went towards the two who eventually got the company.
I rationalized it as a self-confidence issue after Thorin asked about it. I wasn’t making it about me or testing the fates. I had told my wife that I would take it as a sign of things looking up. Really, though, my vote was based on the fact that what was important to me had changed.
Before, when Thorin had first planned to give it away, I was already decorating my office in my mind. After the accident, I just wanted it all to be over and for normalcy to return.
Sunday turned out to be a personal milestone of two days in a row without the constant tremor in my hands. The group had split up. To some, DragonCon was all new, and they were exploring. To others, the plan was to hit the favorite places and relax. For the first time in six weeks, I was able to do just that, feeling at peace with where I was. During those weeks after the accident, I had learned a lot about myself, others, and life itself at that time.
One lesson is that, at times, our friends and family will fail us; we will fail ourselves and them. It is then that we get back up and move forward again. We may be standing alone or with others. As long as we draw breath, it isn’t finished.
To keep track of human fallibility, look at the difference between people’s public versus online personas. A useful measurement is to go by what they do versus what they say. Using myself as an example, Alex had noted the change in me over the past three Wolf Fests. The first one, I had stayed in my shell, talking less than usual while I took it all in. An entirely new experience that, until the ride home, I didn’t really say anything, and then I couldn’t keep quiet on the 8-hour drive. Sorry, Bobby.
The second year, I was projecting a mask, which was confirmed after watching a video my wife took in Atlanta. I wasn’t walking; it was a strut, chest out and arms spread to make myself look more prominent. We’ve all probably seen it, the guy who thinks he’s a badass and cock of the walk. A better example may be when two guys square up, except not as exaggerated. It’s posturing.
The mindset between the first two years was different too. This was evident when guys flirted with my wife and the different approaches I took. The first time was in a hug line in the hotel, a line of my friends all with various signs with “Free _______,” usually hugs or ass grabs, and in Zach’s case, Tibet. No one took him up on that one.
I took a break, watching the competition for the most hugs between her and my nephew Connor. This guy struck up a conversation with us about something that has slipped my mind since and noticed her free hug sign, deciding he wanted one. She does have some good hugs. I was cool with that—it’s the nature of the game, and I had gotten a few myself.
Except he didn’t go away. He was flirting. When he started, Thorin glanced at me, and I moved. I didn’t give her a chance to send him away on her own like she had countless others. It was me appearing a foot away with a glare that said “walk away.” He did, quickly. Was it my insecurities or over-protectiveness? I am not sure.
This year, we didn’t have a hug line. It was more business than pleasure. While listening to Thorin speak, I had been watching a group of people moving toward Casey sitting by a pole charging her phone. Then, when they walked away, this young guy came up cautiously and sat off to the side of her. I’m still watching from about thirty yards away as she pointed to her ring and then at me watching, and he left. I don’t blame them for flirting, she’s gorgeous.
This year, when people looked at me, what they saw was what they got: no mask, the pain evident in my eyes. Bobby counseled me to follow my wife’s example to try my damnedest to have fun. I’m not sure what changed, but by Sunday, it was like a switch had been flipped. I felt self-actualized, sitting comfortably in my own skin on the patio of a gourmet pizza/beer place. I relaxed and enjoyed myself. No projections, just being.
Over the past six weeks, I had either discovered or rediscovered a bit of humility, something that is usually interpreted as low self-esteem. In Atlanta, more than one friend told me I need to build up my confidence, which is partially correct. However, being humble isn’t thinking yourself inferior, it’s thinking less about yourself and more of others.
This came to light the weekend that the reins to Wicked Jester were passed to three people. It wasn’t about getting a successful company. I have Abyss Press. Though months later, I am still in awe of the support I do have, like a lot of people from the group I had never personally met until that weekend wearing the limited run of Abyss Press shirts.
I got three things from this. One, insecurity has always been an issue. Two, enough believed in me to make me a successor of WJ. It’s a good feeling, yet I still needed that internal drive. The last thing was that week had left me with a sense of hope, despite all the grief, anger, fear, among other issues. I saw a light at the end of the tunnel. It lightened the burden a bit.
After we got home, I started to really miss my friends, almost to the point of tears, combined with a desire to go deeper within. One way I was doing that was therapy and discussions with my closest friends. At the time, I was dealing with increasing anxiety again, unsure if, when my phone vibrated, it was dealing with our legal issues, an emergency, or a regular text. If it went off and I couldn’t check to be sure, then I went into a near-panic imagining the worst.
Part of how I dealt with it was by thinking in terms of what is actually happening. Example, the phone vibrated, and that was all I could verify, so any thought should stop there. Another example was when everyone else went to give their statement and interview to the prosecutor about what happened. I had to force myself to think of it as all I could verify was a lawyer recording the conversation in an office, no sound to prevent myself from filling in the words with my worries.
I feared the unknown, hated the lack of control I had over our lives. Our future was in the hands of detectives, lawyers, and judges. To ease my wife’s mind, I gave her a pump-up speech that was as much for me as it was her, along with a healthy dose of prayer.
With that past us, we attempted to put our lives back to some semblance of normal. Casey and the ladies did some redecorating in our old home as we made plans to try spending a night there again. It was too soon for her, though I did appreciate the simple family life’s return for a time. It freed me up to where I could write and revisit my past thought processes compared to now. I looked at old pictures of our godson, and for once I was the cooler head, taking on my wife’s role of calming the other down when she had a panic attack over the Department of Human Services letter.
I got back into strength training again, not as frequent as before but comprehensive with a double kettlebell complex. Still, it was an attempt at normalcy. During this period, I had the urge to cry often along with my near-constant shakes. I was working on not rationalizing or questioning all these feelings and letting them happen.
When I did my insights at the time, I was tracking emotions, flashbacks, shakes, and general anxiety/panic attacks. Everything was on a downward trend from before, with a lot of my feelings switching from fear-based to grief-based.
The real puzzle at the time was the emotional suppression. Had it always been there, or was it from the shock of the trauma? I think it was the defense mechanism known as Intellectualization in hindsight, as I was more emotional than I realized. I just suppressed them. Or so I thought, except Bobby, Beth, Ralski, among others, noticed it, with Ralski saying my soul was screaming through my eyes in anger.
Chris and Thorin helped with a tactic of letting the emotions flow through me without questioning them. The ability to set them aside so we can act with a clear head is still a valuable tool to have. Balancing this should shrink the “keep away bubble” I have, considering more people talk to me more often than before.
Around this time, I overheard an opinion about a high-profile murder trial that surprisingly set me off. I felt insulted by the ease with which it was delivered, particularly the calling for the death of another human. When I watch people, I am amused at the bravado and posturing; it reminds me of puppies growling and fighting over dominance. However, if someone gets their feelings hurt, we often hear threats such as “I’m going to kill you” or statements such as “I wish you were dead.” Or if someone gets self-righteous (could accuse me of that in this paragraph) about a situation, spouting judgment with little facts, then my blood pressure goes up. Around this time, I was in a similar case, so it was raw to me.
For some more context, it happened while I was in the break room at work when I heard a discussion about the murder trial in Florida and one person popped off, “Someone needs to put a bullet in him.” The ignorance and irreverence for life got to me. I doubted they fully understood what they were saying so casually; death is permanent and should be taken seriously.
Consider the repercussions of what was said. When someone says that, are they willing to carry the sight and the scent of blood with them forever? The last gasp of air endlessly reverberating in their minds? An experience that springs unbidden to the mind eternally more? Are you willing to watch a family collapse just because you’re hung up on your idea of justice?
Reverse it: what if it was your family? Would you be so willing then to pronounce a death sentence? Are you ready to carry it out yourself, along with the consequences of it all, on the run or in prison because you had your feelings hurt? Having seen the results of violent death, it changes you, something others I have spoken with have confirmed. It’s a thankfully rare occurrence that is final; you find ways to cope with it.
Life has more beauty to it, with the little things becoming more important. I want you to take away from this an appreciation for life while you prioritize the truly important. In the end, you will have regrets, so overwhelm them with moments you can remember with a smile.
During this time, I had been slowly coming to grips with my regrets by trying not to make the same mistakes twice. I make time with all the various kids in my life, appreciate them more in general, though for some going through the same thing I am, it hurts to see them. They serve as a reminder that what once was is now gone. It brings a pang to the heart.
It’s like seeing a particular object or place that triggers a memory of a time in the past. An example of it is a metal rabbit sculpture in Little Rock’s River Market. Every time I see it, I associate it with the time my wife posed on it when we were dating. As time passes, the emotions will lessen but may still be there. You’ll move on while cherishing the times together.
During this time, my phone became a source of anxiety every time it went off. I panicked fearing lousy news ever since I got a call about the certified letter from the state police. In times I needed to unplug from the world, like in my Jeet Kune Do class, it went on silent. In the book Howls From The Wolfpack, I had written a bullet quote in response to the waiting game after my step-father-in-law’s motorcycle accident. We had very little information, seconds felt like minutes, minutes felt like hours.
“They say ignorance is bliss, they’re wrong, it’s a fucking bitch.”
In that context, the broader sense of not knowing, the bullet was true. However, you should make time at least once a week to disconnect from the world and do something that recharges you. During that time, I don’t mind being ignorant of what’s going on outside of me. For me, it’s training my body, mind, and body as one. It’s to me what shopping is to my wife.
It is very therapeutic, requiring me to clear my head and live in the moment or I would be hit while sparring. Life piles a lot on us; sometimes you have to shrug before you break. Manage trials well enough where you can grow from them, like a good strength-training program that has rest and recovery periods. Make use of them before you fall apart and are of no use to anyone at all.
Over the last two months, I had made some drastic internal changes, something that is easily not noticed. That’s the problem; primarily as we work on our faults that people still see the previous version of us. Through our habits, our character shows, and it ingrains that image into their minds. To overcome this, you have to break your personal stereotype to gain their trust and respect back. It’s essential to keep in mind that you’re changing and evolving into the person you want to be, for you.
When I had written earlier about being someone you can respect, you will have to go through the same process with those you want in your life. It takes time partly because of the old saying about a leopard not being able to change its spots, though it is more of a half-truth.
Barring a mental illness, your base personality type will not change. Specific areas can be built up and strengthened. A leopard is a predator driven by instinct; it doesn’t have any sentience on the level of a human. It cannot decide its principles, values, or direction in life. To the cat, when it’s hungry, it hunts. It scents a willing female. It mates and responds to the cold by finding a warm spot. In a way, animals’ lives are much more straightforward, with fewer choices, only necessity. Humans have an opportunity; everything on a base level can be focused and used as we see fit.
A lot of people focus on the social aspects, usually manipulating them and people. From the grand scale of a national government to where we work, notice the dominance game by committee known as politics. In both cases, it’s ego-driven, pushing how they think things should be done. For example, at work, a person was fired after some alleged back and forth between his rival and the front office. In a sense, they had him banished from the tribe over petty nonsense. We’re disposable no matter how important we think we are.
The differences in people’s perspectives based on life experience can be dizzying or upsetting since there isn’t one but many different ways to measure it. For example, I have a friend that has worked security in three various fields most of his life, where he has seen the effects of when bad things happen to people. Most of the time, all that people see is a clinical news story or a dramatization on TV. That is where they draw their experience from, with a dash of imagination. That is all they have, hopefully to never find out otherwise. I noticed this difference when he asked a serious question, forgetting that only about six of the group could speak with any real experience.
It gives you the feeling of being off-kilter. Like a puzzle piece that doesn’t quite fit, it is merely what it is. It’s a temptation, but don’t use it as a crutch to gain sympathy with or base your self-identity around. It is a part of the matrix that makes you who you are, not what defines you ultimately. In my case, it put a hole in the lens through which I view the world, along with our own levels of Hell with the demons that reside in our head. An in-law reminded me of that while I listened to her recount her childhood. Mine was not particularly rosy, while hers was more thorns than flowers. Did she feel like a victim?
Nor did she feel superior because she had overcome it. It taught me a valuable lesson on not trying to one-up people on personal tragedies. They’re based on more than the event themselves as different people have different levels of inner-strength. Compared to what we may be feeling or facing, their experience in something carries a different weight. Relatively speaking, they could be stronger than me, or me them. It doesn’t matter—what matters is that they are having a hard time. Respect that, as we all have hard times.
Halfway through the month, the first signs of self-hatred and rage surfaced again. I was pacing, wanting to hit something, anything, so I took it out on a dumpster. The self-hatred coming back was when I saw an internet meme that read “If you had a warning label, what would it say?” The first thing that popped into my head was “Keep away from children.” Along with memories of how pretentious of an asshole I had been.
It’s not a secret that families squabble. This one was no different, and letting it keep me away gave birth to one of my larger demons: regret. It was over a legitimate issue. However, I chose to wallow in anger rather than discuss it. It interfered in many different relationships, with emotions distorting the way I looked at things dealing with my godson’s family.
When dealing with emotion, it is always an issue of perception versus what is actually happening. It brings into the equation what you feel, not what you think, with the subjectivity of your worldview not solving the problem. Look back into your personal history. If someone you didn’t like did something “right,” would you recognize or ignore it? Works in reverse with that perfect someone who can do no wrong, the same principle in action. Emotions blind.
I used a 17:06 to deal with it back then when anger turned to cruelty and having my eyes opened to a few misconceptions. Blind, remember? Crow doesn’t taste good, though I still choked it down.
After the accident, everything seemed pointless and petty even to bother arguing about. No one but me was required to live by the standards I set, and I wasn’t doing a very good job of it either. Everyone was broken and cracked, trying to put each other back together again. Loner I thought and claimed to be, I realized I wasn’t alone, especially in that first month and a half. I was rarely alone, nor did I wish to be alone. I made an effort to open up my little bubble so I could appreciate and cultivate relationships. Still very much an introvert, I was trying to get closer to people.
The overarching lesson was used as a transformational statement to overlook differences for the sake of relationships with those that do matter. Unless you become a hermit and mail order everything, you can’t control who comes into your life. The ones that bother you, in my experience, it’s best just to accept that that is who they are, minimize contact, and don’t emotionally deal with them.
Even with the opening up, physically and emotionally, I still have a switch where I can disconnect when something comes up. When the hits keep coming, it’s an excellent ability to have, as I found out two different times.
First was my wife’s allergic reaction to a new medicine. Before work, she looked in the kitchen and then at me saying she was seeing double. Click. Gather information, assess, act. I was all business grabbing the medicine’s data for a quick look at side effects. There it was with instructions to see a doctor, so we left for the ER. No panic or fear, just a single-minded focus.
Later, I finally balanced the checkbook to find out we were broke. During that time, no one really cared about the day-to-day necessities. Fortunately, the emergency savings absorbed it so the $3,000 we had in the bank only ended up a little over $100 left instead of negative.
It plays a part in another way, when I’m helping others, either watching over the drunk so they don’t hurt themselves, listening to someone who’s troubled, teaching, or just keeping an eye open for trouble, I feel like I’m accomplishing something. It helped, and at the time, I wasn’t sure why.
It was a feeling that quickly went away with just a phone call from the detective on the case and was replaced by anxiety. It didn’t matter what he said, any call terrified me. He informed me that I needed to contact my lawyer and come in to look at a photo lineup.
The next morning, we arrived at the sheriff’s department to look at the six pictures. I studied them for a long time, trying to remember the guy’s features who sold me the stolen pistol, but I couldn’t place him well enough to sign it. His face wasn’t what I remembered—it was his limp.
The detective told me about the effort he had put into finding the guy, but he found him finally in an Oklahoma prison, with a record in my state. The limp gave him away, along with documents tracing his address and prior robberies.
He walked us through our potential future the prosecutor may push for. Two misdemeanors: theft by receiving and endangering the welfare of a minor. Both of the charges carry a fine up to $1000 and a year in county jail. The prosecutor was focused on me for the charges, not my wife, with the theft-by-receiving charge possibly being dropped. If he got that call for the arrest, he said he would get in touch with my lawyer and come in for paperwork and pictures, to be released afterward probably. If no charges were filed, he would just let us know it was over and that would be the end of that.
I was thrilled to have someone on my side at the time. The first attorney, we just couldn’t afford, the fee costing more than our assets and retainer fee requiring more than my truck and her car combined. I was positive it was the end of the line for us, when a friend at church mentioned to us that his friend was a lawyer to see if he could help us.
We met him before actually at J’s house. I remembered him being there then. He wasn’t a practicing defense attorney, but he was certified with a few cases under his belt. I called it a miracle, sure felt like one to me. The difference in having him there was immense. My anxiety was at a level where all I had to do was keep my trembling hands clasped together.
Afterward, while at work, my demons would come and play. My head is such a convoluted mess, emotions so intense I had to purge them with a 17:06 freewriting exercise from Unchained. No way was I going to suppress these emotions; doing so just sets it up where they come back stronger after the pressure builds up. To give you an idea, I’ll tell you about the thoughts that came to mind, especially looking at my goddaughter…
“Keep away from children.”
“Don’t break this one.”
“You’re death. An accident waiting to happen.”
So I asked the question “Why do I hate myself?” Letting my mind wander, I typed whatever sprang to mind. I hated that it happened in our home and there being nothing I could do to bring him back. Surrounded by people in pain, packing his life away, and holding my wife at night as she sobbed. The grief, guilt, hatred filling me up, terrified I would be locked up and my wife left alone to fend for herself. I felt like the Grim Reaper that day. While everyone else was breaking down, I was pale and white.
All of that was crawling up from a deep well that led to my personal hell. A reminder that I had been an asshole, along with its friends’ Regret and Guilt frequently visiting. I hated them, and in turn hated myself, hated that others were hurting with their lives forever changed.
At the time, I carried a small part of his ashes in a pendant until it reached a point that they felt heavy and disturbing. After that, I displayed them on a shelf with the memorial statuette for our miscarried child from a year previous. I wasn’t looking for forgiveness—I was looking for redemption, feeling that my private hell was punishment.
I was reminded of a story about a Cherokee legend where a boy asks his grandfather about good and evil. The wise old man uses the analogy of two wolves living inside everyone that continuously fight. One is the embodiment of anger, envy, sorrow, regret, greed, arrogance, self-pity, guilt, resentment, inferiority, lies, false pride, superiority, and ego.
If it was a negative emotion or attitude, that big bad wolf had it in spades. Its counterpart embodies peace, joy, love, hope, serenity, humility, kindness, benevolence, empathy, generosity, truth, compassion, and faith. The winner is decided by which one you choose to feed. Do you focus mostly on the aspects within one or the other?
Are they demons or angels, good versus evil, or is it merely different mindsets? I took the idea and ran with it after seeing a particular artist’s work at DragonCon in Atlanta. I bought three prints of his, the first being a black sword-wielding werewolf surrounded by fire, to me personifying my darkness, rage, hate, pride, and ego. I dubbed him the Rage Hellfire Wolf (RHW). The next one was a white werewolf standing vigil in silver-plated armor, representing who I want to be: pure, helpful, good, respectful, and confident. The Silent Guardian Wolf (SGW) and he’s my phone’s wallpaper as a reminder.
Often, they battle within, with the white wolf triumphing, yet the dark one doesn’t go quietly, reminding me of the past. I have to realize I’m human, and to be human is to fail. The key is learning from it, using it as a good or bad example, and hopefully helping someone. It is when I’m caring for those around me that I feel powerful, watching over whatever group I am in. I watch the dynamics, occasionally talking and making sure no one else gets hurt if I can help it.
What is this war within: a demon or myself? While that voice is in my ear, others are lifting me up. People I’ve never met that have seen my work singing my praises, and I wonder what they’re seeing that I don’t.
Then you have others whose goal is to make you feel small so they can feel big. I see it around me, at work with bullshit power plays angling for status individually or as a group. Occasionally, one tries it on me, attempting to get me involved, except it doesn’t work. I just walk away. You don’t have to participate in every fight you’re invited to, as I once read.
Then, in contrast, I see people with nothing to gain, not tearing people down but helping them. I saw it at work, minutes after another pulled a dominance game on me, where we celebrated turning around our safety record with a catered dinner. They brought some cookies, and the one who made them was really insecure about if they were good enough. His partner had no such illusions, telling us how good they were. After trying one, I had to agree, complimented him, and asked how he made them. It helped make us both feel better—that’s a win.
On a larger scale, I have both types around me, as do most people. Those who see something worth telling the world about while others try to tear them down (I’ve done it). I thought to myself, with all the shit life throws at you, much of it you carry alone, who will catch you when you buckle? A lot of people use others to get to the top, to get their way. Who will be there when life gets to me? After I said that, my wife looked at me matter-of-factly and pointed to herself.
What’s the lesson in all this pain? At this point, it’s about feeding the good wolf, focusing on who I want to be. It was not over yet. October was bringing its own challenges and lessons.