In Exile

[This is a chapter from my unfinished memoirs. Enjoy.]

Growing up is such an odd sensation. As a kid, I remember thinking that the day I’d be an adult was so far off – incomprehensibly in the future. And I remember thinking that I would just magically be different – all of the sudden I was to become infinitely wise, strong, perceptive. The transformation from child to adult, boy to man – as if I were to go to bed one night and wake up the next morning forever and irrevocably different, improved.

Those of us who have grown up know that this is so very much not the case. It feels like I haven’t even grown up at all; merely gotten older. And yet, looking back, one can see the ways in which they have grown and changed. The arrogance of adolescence, the desire to rebel and all the angst and self-righteousness. Oh yes, how I’ve changed.

I remember thinking how oppressed I was in my youth. Not literally oppressed, but more…suffocated by my mother and her presence. She seemed to loom over me, choking out and stifling my ability to be motivated about anything. Any time I would start writing something new, any time I met a new friend, any time I met a girl I’d fancied, it seemed like I would have some particularly nasty fight with my mother, and like that I was sapped of all energy and willpower. I remember wanting to get out of her house as quickly as possible.

And at the age of seventeen, after several failed attempts and foiled plans, I finally did. It was around the time that I confirmed my departure that I began compiling this tome, and over the past three and a half years I have added to it periodically. In its inception, I viewed myself as moving away to Utah and living some great and fabulously successful life. I was to meet women, perhaps date them and settle down with one of them. I was to complete my long unfinished novel. I was to write about my terrible childhood and my wonderful adventures in Utah. It was to be unique – perhaps one of the first accounts of someone who grew up so intimately on and with the internet, so engrossed in professional video games, so nerdy.

Things, it would happen, did not pan out that way.

Upon arriving in Utah, I started volunteering at Nathan and Paul’s gaming center in downtown Salt Lake City. I wanted to find a job and a place of my own to live at as soon as possible – I was then staying with Nathan at his parent’s house as he too looked for a place to move his family – but Nathan insisted I be patient. He was in the midst of preparing for his magnum opus to the Unreal Torunament 2004 community, UTLAN, which would commence in August and was to be hosted at his gaming center. It was to attract some of the best players in the community from all over the country.

Initially, I was excited to be in Utah. I would often walk around the large and (relatively, in comparison to Bellingham’s downtown area) clean downtown area. I delighted in finding the local sights and attractions, getting to know the transit system, finding good restaurants to eat at. The managers at local restaurants came to know me by name and would give me discounts or free food. It was a good feeling to be known. I tried applying at a few places to work in the downtown area but never got a call back.

UTLAN 2006 came and went. Overall it was an extremely fun event, though stressful to prepare for. I met a lot some disparate and interesting people – the coolest of whom was probably a William Moyer, who has since become involved in politics. He was very intelligent and animated, and though a bit sarcastic, he was pretty friendly. All 40 or so people who showed up had a very good time, and online disputes were put aside as we all shared in having a good time. We went out to eat as a group and everyone seemed to bond. Of course, the old rivalries flared back up over the internet once everyone went home, but people were looking forward to UTLAN 2007.

It was about this time that Nathan’s parents popped some unexpected news on me – I was to leave their house within a week. Apparently, they had told Nathan I was to only stay for two weeks, while he gave me the impression that I was going to be able to stay for a month. Thankfully, Nathan’s brother Paul and his wife Melanie hosted my unemployed waif of a self while I looked for employment and an apartment, preventing me from a very unwanted return to Bellingham and high school.

Employment came quickly and in the beginning of August I started working part time at the mall, selling and repairing watches and clocks. I still volunteered at the gaming center, but would quickly stop as the brothers closed it down. I saved up enough money to get an apartment, and scored a centrally located one.

Salt Lake City is basically a giant grid (including its suburbs) and extends all the way down south into the suburb of Sandy. Road names generally follow a numbering scheme and are centered on the Mormon temple in downtown Salt Lake. The first road west of the Temple is West Temple, and the next one is 100 West, then 200 West and so on. It is like this in all directions. I believe it is State Street that runs straight into the Temple, with Main Street next to it. State Street is a north-south avenue that extends all the way down into Sandy. Sandy starts at about 9000 South, and the suburb I lived in, Murray, started at about 4000 South. My apartment was at about 4700 South and State Street – centrally located. I was about a ten minute walk from the train station and a three minute walk from the nearest bus stop.

I lived above a playhouse that featured a cabaret theater and a dinner theater, specializing mostly in musical comedies that were written and produced in house. It was an island of liberal thinking in a sea of conservative thinking and Mormonism, and was a pretty cool place aside. The apartments were owned by the same gentleman that owned the theater, and he quickly took a liking to me and offered me a secondary job working in the box office at the theater. I took it, less for the pay and more for the ability to see free shows and get a discount on the food (which was quite good). I quickly repaid Paul and Melanie a sum of money, something like $300 to $500 in thanks of their housing me. They were surprised, expecting nothing – but I couldn’t let their kindness go unpaid, especially on such short notice.

Another perk (and unseen curse) was the staff there. The cabaret side of the operation employed attractive young girls, ages generally from 16 to 19 (though some older college girls also worked part time, as they had been working there since they were in high school also) and provided me ample opportunity to flirt. My advances were unsuccessful, much to my frustration and confusion. Hindsight has elucidated my failures to me (I didn’t care about my appearance, I was intentionally awkward, I relied too much on humor and intellect and not enough on being personable) and I’ve discussed the particulars of my romantic foibles in detail elsewhere here.

When I first started working at my job at the mall, I looked like a mess. I wore the same shirt most days, didn’t know how to properly tie a tie, had a scruffy and unkempt haircut. My boss quickly took me under his wing, gave me some fashion sense and even took me shopping for some good dress clothes once. He was about ten years my senior, and we hit it off as friends. He was also recently relocated from out of state – having managed a kiosk in Boise for five years with oustanding results, the company felt he was just the man to run its number one store after the former manager there was promoted to a higher position.

The both of us weren’t exactly quick to warm up to the local populace – too conservative and Mormon for our Godless, liberal upbringings. As time worn on, we spent more time hanging out after work – I’d go to his apartment and we’d watch movies or recordings of concerts together. We’d go out to eat or go out to the movies. He started getting into the guitar (an old hobby of his) and began to play his favorite metal songs – a technically enviable feat. He even showed me how to play a bit, but I never really took it up. He even took me to my first concert – an all day metal festival.

And so it was like this I wasted away days, weeks, and months. Working 40 to 80 hours a week, getting better at hawking my wares and repairing timepieces new and old, buying things I didn’t need to fill voids I couldn’t heal. My life was going nowhere, fast. I had intended on going to college sometime in the future.

But that future never came, as I didn’t want to go into debt and did not have the time to really seek it out anyway. Transportation was an issue, as I never had a car and had to rely on public transit. I met women, it is true, but none of them seemed to fancy me, and I found that I couldn’t work up the courage to ask them on a date anyway. Where was I to take them? What was I to do with them? I wasted just a few days over a year mulling around in Utah until I woke up one day – shortly after having been promoted to assistant manager at my retail job – with an epiphany: I was going to wind up exactly like my dad.

There had been talk in the company of my abilities and my rather rapid rise to the assistant manager position – at the number one grossing location – and I was slated for the next promotion to manager in the area. At first, I was rather smug with this news, being the renegade and idealistic high-school drop out that I was. But when I realized that my father, in his youth, had foregone higher education in order to manage another retail operation…and when I recalled his life successes (or lack thereof) I immediately became discouraged.

What was I doing? Where was I going? I had wasted an entire year in an unfamiliar state. I had made few friends. All I had to show for my time was an increasingly large collection of media – books, music, video games, and a faster computer. My life felt very hollow. Where was the magnificent change that was supposed to occur? I was away from my mother, after all. Wasn’t that the source of all my weakness? Wasn’t that the reason why I hadn’t finished my novel, why I couldn’t get the money to go to St. John’s?

Apparently not.

The company I worked for continued to rot. The upper echelons of management continued to make rather unpopular decisions, blaming lower-than-expected profit margins and sales figures on its stores and the employees working in them. (This was ironic, as the Wall Street journal was running articles about how retail sales were at an all time low as the economy recessed.) Many, including myself and my manager, became fed up with the way we were treated. I couldn’t imagine trying to forge a career for myself with this company. College was out of the question. It seemed like the military was my only option.

My grandfather had been a Lieutenant Colonel in the United States Marine Corps. The Marine Corps had always had a mythical presence in my childhood – any time the Discovery channel ran a program on them, I watched it in awe. The world’s finest fighting force, they seemed to routinely undergo the most intense training imaginable. They were heroes to me. The way kids dream about being President or an astronaut or a rock star – that was the way I felt about the Marine Corps. It was a flight of fancy, something I thought I would never be able to accomplish. I even remember confiding in Sara that it was something I envied, though never seriously considered doing.

But as my situation worsened, as my life wasted away in a maelstrom of apathy and discontent, I began to consider it. The Marine Corps. Me? On a whim on one of my off days, I caught the train down to Sandy, Utah and looked around for the recruiting office I heard was nearby. I had already done some research and read some books – it seemed like everyone who enlisted in the Marine Corps found it to be one of the best decisions of their life. All of the complaints about the military – getting screwed over by recruiters, the government not meeting its end of the bargain, getting screwed out of your job, getting your contract jerked around and on and on – seemed not to mention the Marines, but instead dealt with (chiefly) the Army (and following that, the Air Force and Navy). Perhaps it had something to do with the relative size of the forces – with the Marine Corps being a mere tenth the size of the Army, it was probably easier to manage incoming recruits and take care of its Marines.

The mall the recruiting office was attached to was under remodeling at the time, and I had a hard time finding the entrance to the office. I must have looked like a rather poor recruit – tall, lanky, I weighed maybe 160 pounds at the height of 6’5. The staff noncommissioned officer in charge (SNCOIC), a gunnery sergeant of eight years (a rather meteoric rise to that rank – on average, it takes a Marine some twelve years to become a gunnery sergeant, and often longer than that) looked every bit a Marine to me. The first thing he said to me that day (aside from asking me my name, or perhaps he overheard it as I talked to another sergeant) was “Well, Donner, if you join, you’ll never have to pay for sex again!” Ah, the Marines. So crass. Just what I was looking for, being so tired and fed up with political correctness and neonazi feminism.

The sergeant that I spent most of my time with, Sergeant Baker, had me pick four name-tag sized tabs from a group of tabs – reasons why I wanted to join the Marine Corps. I picked college, challenge, financial stability, and physical fitness. There were no tabs for “overcoming a debilitating amount of depression,” “rehabilitation from a year of customer service,” “an anger at mankind one wants to express with a rifle,” and so on. Upon seeing my tabs, Sergeant Baker said “College and money, huh? If those are your chief reasons, you’re probably better off serving in the Air Force.” And he spun his chair around, as if to say I should leave.

Marine recruiters are good at what they do. It is their job to find the best young men for the Corps, and despite popular opinion, the application process is rather stringent. Even for enlisted Marines, there are strict requirements, and while I was in the process of enlisting, I saw several potential recruits weeded out or turned away by the Marines working in the office. Even in a time of war, Marine recruiters have a keen sense of duty and want to make sure that they are sending only the best candidates into their beloved Corps. One way that they do this is by making sure a potential recruit truly understands and appreciates what he is doing.

Lots of people turn to the military for the benefits and the benefits alone, and the Marines are acutely aware of this. Of the service branches, the Marine Corps offers the fewest benefits to its recruits (saving them instead for those looking to re-enlist, and even then the other branches often offer better bonuses and incentives). The Marine Corps prefers its Marines enlist and reenlist based on a willingness to serve, on a willingness to be the best of the best, based on the intangible benefits of pride and confidence that being a Marine offers you.

It wasn’t just college that I was looking for. I wasn’t just looking for financial stability. I still remembered the fanciful dreams of my youth – the mystique and myth of the Corps, that group of superheroes. I told Sergeant Baker that if I was going to join the military, the Corps was the only branch for me. Hearing that, he turned around and we got down to business.

By the time I left that office several hours later, we had an appointment set for me to undergo my enlistment, undertaking all the necessary physical and academic exams. Sergeant Baker enrolled me in a local adult education school so that I could finish up my last year of high school and get the degree that was necessary for enlistment. I felt like a different person. I was anxious and scared at the same time. Within the week, I would be signing a contract stating that I was going to enlist as a Private in the United States Marine Corps.

Nobody I knew (and still talked to) could believe it. My manager in particular said I would never make it – he later apologized, explaining that he was just stressed out and worried about what my departure from the store would mean for him. We were pretty good friends outside of work, and he, like me, did not have many people he spent time with in Utah. He quit shortly after I went to boot camp.

Sergeant Baker helped me get in shape for boot camp. When I enlisted in August 2007, I was what was referred to as a “triple threat,” I could not meet any of the three requirements of the Marine Corps’ Initial Strength Test (the necessary requirements for a recruit to pass in order to proceed with training in boot camp). They require a recruit to perform two dead hang pull ups, perform forty-four crunches in two minutes, and to run one and a half miles in thirteen minutes and thirty seconds. The run and the crunches came quickly for me, as I was not particularly out of shape – I did a lot of walking and have never been very fat. My biggest problem was that since my freshman year of high school, I had not done anything particularly active with my life (like a sport or active hobby).

Even though I was not physically in the best shape, the Marines at the recruiting office were behind me every step of the way. Sergeant Baker took me to the gym whenever he could and helped get me on a training regiment. The gunnery sergeant in charge of the office expressed his confidence in me, and reminded me that nobody cares more about one’s career than oneself. “Even if you aren’t in the best of shape for boot camp, don’t let that get you down, Donner. Just work at it as hard as you can. One day you’ll get there. That’s what’s important. Four years from now, when you’re re-enlisting and looking at picking up Corporal or Sergeant or, hell, who knows, maybe Staff Sergeant, nobody will be asking what your PFT (physical fitness test) score at boot camp was.” (The Physical Fitness Test is the test Marines run semi-annually to assess fitness. It is used for promotions. A minimum of three dead-hang pull-ups, 55 crunches in two minutes, and three miles ran in 28 minutes is required to pass. For a maximum score, a Marine must perform 20 dead hang pull-ups, 100 crunches in two minutes, and clock in their three mile run at 18 minutes or below.)

The encouragement and support I received from the Marines and fellow poolees (those of us who enlisted into the Delayed Entry Program, and were going to boot camp within a year) was remarkable and refreshing. Never before had I felt like I had had so much support. And the things that I felt I was accomplishing at the time were remarkable also. I had never felt like I was achieving so many things so quickly. Within two months, I went from failing all three events of the IST and being a high school drop out to having my diploma and being above average in two of three events. The other event, pull-ups, would prove to be the bane of my existence for some time to come yet.

But Sergeant Baker wouldn’t see me discouraged. “Even if you can’t get your pull-ups before you go to boot camp, they’ll usually let you continue on in training anyway. Then you’ll have three months to get your three pull-ups down so you can graduate. The worst that can happen is you’ll get dropped back in training to the Physical Conditioning Platoon, where you’ll stay until you can meet the requirements.” This didn’t seem all that bad.

I’ll pause here in the narrative for a moment. I’ve always wanted this work to be a selfless examination of myself and my past, as my memory is extremely spotty and I want something to refer back to later. I tend to bottle up emotions and feelings and forget about them. Then I wonder about the decisions I’ve made, and have no emotional context to understand them in. It can be a difficult process recreating my life, sifting through all of the cracks and crevices I’ve hidden myself in. Because of this, I want to discuss a less flattering part of my enlistment process.

The entire time I was in Utah I was (as should be evidenced elsewhere in this work) extremely depressed. Depression is something I am and have been very familiar with. I have grown accustomed to it and do very well hiding it. It surprised me, sometimes, the depth of it. A random event or memory could trigger a huge emotional response in me. In Utah, I remember sifting through some old journals or maybe my yearbooks, and suddenly something clicked. I was rendered immobile for the rest of my weekend off from work – I didn’t leave my apartment, I slept 14 or 15 hours each day. It was somewhat frightening. I began to shy away from self-examination, self-reflection, or brooding of any sort, as it made it rather difficult to live life.

Another time, I was browsing Barnes and Noble, looking for something interesting to read (as I had taken to reading as a way to pass the time to and from work) and stumbled across the book “I Don’t Want To Talk About It – The Secret History of Male Depression” by Terrence Real. I spent one tearful evening reading the entire volume and was again rendered immobile by my emotional response. I wanted desperately to talk to someone about my response to the book, but no one returned my calls or seemed interested. I didn’t want to talk to a psychologist, as talking to someone who is paid to be your friend and make you feel better seems a rather silly thing to do. So my emotional response to that tome was another thing forgotten to the sands of time.

But I still remember my morbidity during the time I was enlisting. For a long time, I had come to some conclusions about my own death. It was probably seventh grade when I’d decided that I would never kill myself – suicide was quitting, I’d reasoned, and I wasn’t going to quit. It was some time later that I justified my lack of healthy living on the notion that, while I wasn’t going to quit life, I wasn’t going to exactly do my best to prevent my own death, either. I became fixated on a sort of passive suicide, a sort of killing myself through unwise living – the apex of which was to be my enlistment in the Marine Corps. What better way to die without killing myself, than putting myself directly in harm’s way in a war zone? Brilliance. Sheer brilliance.

I have been a believer in the notion that there is beauty in everything, even death. There is a tragic beauty in the oblivion my brother drank himself into – a beauty he and I both understand. I understand his attraction to it; when I was conducting an “interview” with him for a school project in high school, I became alarmed when he stated that he was drawn in to drinking by his fascination with the beauty of oblivion. I had, at the time, been considering taking up the bottle myself – I was about the same age he had been when he had taken his first drink – and this deterred me. I had always assumed that my brother’s alcoholism had been a direct response to my mother’s emotional abuse, but to hear my brother tell it scared me.

There is beauty in everything, even death. I wanted a beautiful death. This life I was living was so completely unsatisfying. American living was so completely unsatisfying to me. Why bother going to college, when all one can hope to do is make more money and buy more things? Where was the virtue in that? Our ancestors fought and died for freedom, liberty, for a noble and beautiful idea, in order to change the world forever. We fought and died for the latest electronic gadget and the prettiest estate. What was the fucking point in life?

Success in American culture was based on a disgusting infatuation with value – value defined not by intrinsic quality, but by how much money something could generate. “Good” music was not necessarily well composed, performed, or emotionally stirring – “good” music generated a lot of sales. Good writing was not necessarily perceptive, striking, or emotionally stirring – good writing generated a lot of sales. Anything “good” was something which generated a lot of sales. Even in public debate, be it the lunch table or on the internet, followed this notion – disputes over whether or not something was “good” often boiled down to how successful that particular thing was commercially.

Military service seemed like the only place I could escape this ubiquitous lust for wealth. Here were the men and women who still believed in freedom and liberty, in giving up their lives for something greater than themselves. Here were the men and women of noble character and virtue, fighting to protect those who were too weak to protect themselves. Politicians be damned. Even if you were tossed into a war you didn’t agree with, you could still fight to make sure the Marine to the left and the right of you had a chance to go home to his or her family and his or her loved ones. Selflessness – a necessary trait for anyone in the military, perhaps THE necessary trait.

There seemed to be a purpose that resonated with me and aligned with my tastes, then, in military service. And the morbid side of myself was placated – what better death could I have, than one in which I died serving my country and fighting hand in hand with my brothers-in-arms? There is beauty in all things, even death.

I didn’t tell my mother I was enlisting until it start to come down to the wire. I needed a copy of my birth certificate, and she was the only one who had access to get me one. I didn’t even call her to tell her. I emailed her, stating rather curtly “Hey mom, I’m enlisting in the Marine Corps so I need a copy of my birth certificate. Please send to this address, thanks, John.” I did not reply when she required further inquiry; she stated she was sending it and that’s all I needed.

Initially, I was slated to fly to boot camp sometime in the middle of September, shortly after my 19th birthday, but I didn’t feel ready enough as the date drew near. I had procrastinated on my high school diploma (I didn’t end up getting it until two days before I flew out of Utah for California!) and I didn’t feel like I was in shape physically (still unable to perform even a single pull-up, a source of constant frustration and shame). Therefore, the intelligence job I had selected became unavailable, as I was going to be enlisting in a new fiscal year (as fiscal years apparently began in October); I temporarily selected a “Data Network Specialist” MOS and that was that.

I put in a lot of notice to my job – perhaps a month or more – as even though I was growing to dislike the decisions higher management was making, I felt like I owed the company quite a bit. They had taken me in without a high school diploma and when I was still 17, and had been quick to promote me and place me in a position of authority and responsibility. I started making eight dollars an hour, flat, and left making about $15 an hour (often more than that, thanks to overtime they let me have) after commission factored in. I helped a new manager get the store ready for his reign, as my manager went to a slower mall. I quit at the end of September and prepared to fly down on October 21st.

My last free month spent as a civilian was a strange time for me. I had absolutely no time – twenty days or so to enjoy my freedom – and all the time in the world, because I didn’t have to go to work. I worked on preparing myself physically and mentally for boot camp. I read as much as I could about what to expect – getting several books about the military and Marine Corps boot camp. In particular I read “The Few and the Proud,” a series of interviews with current and former Drill Instructors, and I read the (then) new Counterinsurgency Field-Manual. And I debated my choice of Military Occupational Specialty in the Corps. Data Network Specialist was something familiar and safe – dealing with computers. There was a future after my service in that. But it was boring and I didn’t want to be stuck doing something boring for four years.

I seriously considered going in to the infantry. I viewed it as a decision I would always regret and wonder about if I didn’t pick it. I didn’t want to always wonder “what might have been,” if I didn’t pick infantry. But I also worried about the toll it would take on my body, and I worried about not being in shape for it. Ultimately my recruiters talked me out of it, telling me that I would be doing myself, the Corps, and my nation a disservice by picking infantry. They get very few recruits with my intellectual capacity to fill the highly technical jobs in the Corps, as most academically inclined recruits either go to other services (Navy and Air Force mostly) or become officers.

It was in this way that I chose an option entitled “Ground Electronics Maintenance.” I thought I would be doing field repairs in combat on various electronic gear – which my recruiters said may be a possibility. It was a rather large option in which you could wind up in one of several different MOS fields. My specific MOS wouldn’t be chosen for me until just before completion of boot camp. I didn’t pick this field until a few days before I was slated to go, and it wasn’t until the day before I was due to have my final night in Utah in a hotel the military was paying for that my recruiter called to tell me he got me the job – and a $15000 bonus, with it. This was unexpected and good news. The bonus was due to the high academic requirements to qualify for the option – you had to have some pretty good scores on the Armed Services Vocational Assessment Battery.

My brother and I had a rather nasty fight a week or two before I was going to leave. I don’t remember much of the particulars anymore, but I do remember that he compared me and my conduct to my mother. Which was absolutely unfucking acceptable to me. I was the only person that believed in him in my family, stuck through the hard times with him, regularly called to see how he was doing. I felt like, at the time, he had burned the bridge. But our relationship was such that this fight didn’t really amount to much and we’d get back in touch while I was in boot camp.

On my final weekend in Utah, some buddies from Bellingham flew down so that we could participate in one last gaming tournament before I departed. Originally, they were going to play with Nathan or his brother Paul, but both bailed towards the last minute because of familial obligations. It worked out that I could have one last night of good times, and so I did. We each won $500, as we had by far the most experience at the game (being a part of the competitive community, we knew nobody of note was going to be at this tournament). I gave my money to Nathan, being as I wouldn’t need it at boot camp.

I remember my last night as a civilian somewhat vividly. I was stationed at the Ramada in downtown Salt Lake City, an area I was pretty familiar with, as I made frequent visits to the outdoor mall for its restaurants. (In particular, I was a recurring customer of the California Pizza Kitchen here, becoming quite familiar with two of its full-service bar waitresses and two of its managers. I often got free meals.) I was nervous and scared and restless. I tried calling people who were important to me at the time, to get some last minute soul searching done. Nobody answered.

I strolled along downtown SLC. We had been briefed that there was a curfew but my recruiter told me it didn’t matter as long as I was back at the hotel in time to leave in the morning. I went to the California Pizza Kitchen a final time, talking to either Kristy or Suzanna. I bought a book on taoism I intended to read during boot camp. And I waited. My boss and I were to see one last movie together before I was going to leave.

The movie was 30 Days of Night, or something like that. A horror movie about a group of vampires that attack some small town in Alaska as they go through their yearly phase without sun because of whatever planetary phenomenon affects that region of the world. It was a decent film but I was preoccupied – my boss hadn’t been there and I felt betrayed. Why was I so unimportant to people, that they jerked me around like that? Why couldn’t I build a lasting connection with anyone?

Much like when I left Bellingham, I was looking to others to make the decision to enlist for me. If anybody expressed doubt or regret at my permanent departure from their life, I wouldn’t have enlisted. I wasn’t really making my own decisions in life, I was letting other people’s actions and reactions determine my fate. And because no one cared about me, I signed on the dotted line. I rationalized the decision to myself in terms of service to my country, defending freedom and liberty, getting into better shape, achieving something – but at the time, the primary motivation was the lack of a reason to not go.

Maybe boot camp would change me. Could it change me? I hoped to keep in touch with several people who expressed interest to do so as I left – keeping a list of addresses in my wallet. Sara was on the list. I fought myself day in and day out over her – part of me wanting to get over her, part of me drawing on her for warmth and support. Even though she wasn’t an active part of my life, I would find my thoughts resting with my memories of her and the support she offered me in my time of need.

And so it was with these disjointed hopes and dreams and feelings and confusion that I found myself a recruit on Marine Corps Recruit Depot, San Diego from 22 October 2007 to 01 February 2008.

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Bipolar Disorder in America

People with “mental disorders” have long been discriminated against in America. It is common knowledge that people with such disorders were, at one point in time, locked away in asylums and treated like (or in some cases, worse than) prisoners. One of the most misunderstood disorders, and the one which will be the focus of this paper, is bipolar disorder (formerly referred to as manic depressive syndrome). “Bipolar disorder is a chronic illness with recurring episodes of mania and depression that can last from one day to months. This mental illness causes unusual and dramatic shifts in mood, energy and the ability to think clearly” (NAMI, 2011). The wisdom of the world states that bipolar disorder is a disease that someone will suffer with for the rest of their life, the treatment of which – especially in the United States – almost always requires medication. I am here to argue that bipolar disorder (and by proxy, other “mental disorders”) are primarily a spiritual malady that one can only be fully healed from by spiritual means, and that the insistence upon medication in the treatment of bipolar is a form of discrimination.

The first order of business is to lay out more fully the worldly, scientific perspective of bipolar disorder and the methods by which it is treated. According to a Veteran’s Administration of San Diego publication, bipolar affects over 10 million people in America and is found in men and women equally. Manic and/or depressive “episodes can last from days to months” (2012). Many people are unfamiliar with mania and find mania to be very frightful; the same publication defines mania as follows: “In the manic phase of bipolar disorder, feelings of increased energy, creativity, and euphoria are common. People experiencing mania often talk a mile-a-minute, sleep little, and are hyperactive. They may also feel all-powerful, invincible, or destined for success” (VAMC San Diego 2012). Jennifer Heintz, who leads a 4-week educational course on bipolar at the VA Hospital in La Jolla, CA, has said that diagnosis of bipolar disorder can be very difficult because people who suffer from bipolar can exhibit traits from all the other “mental disorders”. In a sense, it is a sort of “super” disorder. The VA publication is interesting in that it admits to that “while medication is a key element in the successful treatment of bipolar disorder, therapy, support, and education about the illness are also necessary…” Moreover it states, and this is very important, “the exact cause of bipolar disorder is not know[n]…” The scientific theory – and it is important to remember that science, by its own mechanics and definitions, can’t actually prove something to be true, though it certainly can be useful for learning about reality – is that “bipolar disorder is most likely caused by multiple factors that interact with each other to produce a chemical imbalance affecting certain parts of the brain” (VAMC San Diego 2012). This disorder – like many other “mental disorders” – is believed to be caused by a chemical imbalance in the brain because doctors have successfully employed chemicals which alter brain chemistry to treat the symptoms of the disorder. It is imperative to keep in mind that prevailing scientific wisdom views bipolar and other “mental disorders” as chronic conditions which require a lifetime treatment of medication. Put simply, according to the modern scientific mindset, there is no cure to bipolar or other “mental disorders;” there is no way to be healed of such disorders.

Historically, “mental disorder” has been used as a justification to discriminate against many different groups of people, from blacks to women. Baynton (2000) argues “opponents of political and social equality for women cited their supposed physical, intellectual, and psychological flaws, deficits…these flaws – irrationality, excessive emotionality…are in essence mental, emotional…disabilities.” People have used disability as a means to discriminate for a long time, and very few if any people have questioned the validity of discrimination on the basis of disability. Griscom outlines an important fact about being labeled as disabled: “Once a person is labeled helpless, there is no need to consult her wishes, consider her written communications, hear her testimony.” I know from personal experience – I’ve been in a psychiatric ward 4 times now for my bipolar diagnosis – that there is a power dynamic at work between doctor and patient, and that the patient’s testimony and wishes (such as the desire to be treated without medication) are often pushed aside because they have a “mental disorder”. Even the very term used – “mental disorder” – implies a fundamental problem with thinking and rationality. The thought that there is a chemical imbalance in the brain, which then causes a person to have faulty reasoning and faculties, makes it easy to discriminate against such people and throw out their testimonies. And indeed, as alluded to in the introduction, many people were simply thrown into asylums for their “mental disorders”. It is commonly known that after the asylums shut down, many were simply released into the streets, and “mental disorders” keep many people homeless. The problem with this labeling is explained by Tatum (1997) – “Even a member of the stereotyped group may internalize the stereotypical categories about his or her own group to some degree. In fact, this process happens so frequently that it has a name, internalized oppression.” Even though the scientific viewpoint admits that the root cause of bipolar disorder is unknown, and that a chemical imbalance is their best guess, patients may begin to internalize the message that they have a faulty brain incapable of reasoning properly and incapable of being in touch with reality without medication despite the fact there may be an alternative answer.

An alternative to medication based treatment is what I call faith based treatment. The Word of God, when studied and applied to one’s life, has a great stabilizing effect on one’s mind. There are many promises of healing in the Bible, and the idea is that we have been made whole by Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross for us (if we have the faith to believe in this sacrifice). “[Jesus] Himself bore our sins in His own body on the tree, that we, having died to sins, might live for righteousness—by whose stripes you were healed” (1 Peter 2:24 New King James Version). Moreover there are many promises in the scriptures that one could latch on to for empowerment. In 2nd Timothy chapter 1 verse 7, it reads “For God has not given us a spirit of fear, but of power and of love and of a sound mind” (New King James Version). The promise of a sound mind here is especially pertinent to those who suffer from “mental disorders.” One reading this paper may wonder why I continue to place the phrase “mental disorder” in quotes – it is because I do not take ownership of having a disorder, or a disease, or a chemical imbalance in my brain. It is my personal belief that when Jesus walked the earth and cast out demons, he was healing people of a condition we now refer to as “mental disorders.” Much more so than any other malady we face as humans, “mental disorders” are primarily a spiritual disorder that requires spiritual treatment. For example, read the following description of Legion, a rather famous group of demons Jesus cast out of a man during his ministry on earth:

And when [Jesus] had come out of the boat, immediately there met Him out of the tombs a man with an unclean spirit, who had his dwelling among the tombs; and no one could bind him, not even with chains, because he had often been bound with shackles and chains. And the chains had been pulled apart by him, and the shackles broken in pieces; neither could anyone tame him. And always, night and day, he was in the mountains and in the tombs, crying out and cutting himself with stones. (Mark 5:2-5 New King James Version)

The inability of this man to be bound harkens back to manic symptoms – especially having high enough energy to break his bindings and his shackles – and the crying out and cutting himself with stones relates to depressive symptoms. It is entirely possible this man could have been diagnosed with bipolar disorder in our modern age. Jesus was able to cast demons out of him because Jesus was the living Word of God, as it says in John 1. Jesus makes a very important statement about why he came to this earth in John 18:37: “For this cause I was born, and for this cause I have come into the world, that I should bear witness to the truth. Everyone who is of the truth hears My voice” (New King James Version). Jesus is making a poignant statement that flies in the face of conventional wisdom; he is saying that there is an absolute truth and that it can be known. He says elsewhere in the scripture that “you shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free” (John 8:32, New King James Version).

One area where spiritual treatment and scientific thought dovetail is in the concept of therapy, and specifically “cognitive behavioral therapy” or CBT. According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), CBT is “an empirically supported treatment that focuses on patterns of thinking that are maladaptive and the beliefs that underlie such thinking” (Warman & Beck, 2003). In the words of one of the instructors at the VA Hospital in La Jolla, the goal of CBT is to change one’s thinking. This is precisely what John the Baptist and later Jesus call people to do when they preach in the Bible “Repent, the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand!” According to Pastor Rob Glickman of Horizon Park Chapel, to repent means literally to change your thinking. One could get very philosophical and talk about the nature of thoughts and where they come from, and that’s a little outside the scope of this paper, but suffice to say that thought life is extremely important to Jesus. He had an important teaching about the location of the Kingdom of God that relates to this: “Now when He was asked by the Pharisees when the kingdom of God would come, He answered them and said, “The kingdom of God does not come with observation; nor will they say, ‘See here!’ or ‘See there!’ For indeed, the kingdom of God is within you” (Luke 17:20-21, New King James Version) This is a powerful statement that really demonstrates the primacy of thought in the Christian life. Paul expounds on this view in one of his epistles: “For the weapons of our warfare are not carnal but mighty in God for pulling down strongholds, casting down arguments and every high thing that exalts itself against the knowledge of God, bringing every thought into captivity to the obedience of Christ…“ (2 Corinthians 10:4-6, New King James Version). Spiritual warfare is cast in terms of arguments and debate – matters concerned with thought and the mind, the very heart of “”mental disorder”s!”

This paper has only scratched the surface of the issue of “mental disorders” and discrimination in America. The idea that one’s brain is defective or has a chemical imbalance becomes internalized and people become disempowered and, as a result, “disabled.” But this is only one worldview; one could choose to have faith in the scriptures and the promises of Jesus and be set free by the truth. As I stated before, “”mental disorders” are primarily a spiritual condition and require spiritual treatment via the Word of God; medication can help manage the symptoms of the disorder but will never address the root cause of what’s really causing a person to suffer. The battle is over the thought life of a person, and medications can certainly help a person think more clearly, but true healing and a true cure (as opposed to management of the symptoms of a “chronic illness”) can come only from belief in the truth.

Works Cited

Baynton, D. C. (2000). Disability and the justification of inequality in american history. In P. Rothenberg (Ed.), Race, Class, and Gender in the United States (pp. 94-102). New York, NY: Worth Publishers.

Griscom, J. L. (n.d.). The case of sharon kowalski and karen thompson. In P. Rothenberg (Ed.), Race, Class, and Gender in the United States (pp. 468-476). New York, NY: Worth Publishing.

NAMI. (2011). What is bipolar disorder?. Retrieved from http://www.nami.org/Content/NavigationMenu/Mental_Illnesses/Bipolar1/Home_-_What_is_Bipolar_Disorder_.htm

Tatum, B. D. (1997). Defining racism “can we talk?”. In P. Rothenberg (Ed.), Race, Class and Gender in the United States (pp. 123-130). New York, NY: Worth Publishing.

VAMC San Diego. (2012). STEP educational workbook. San Diego: Veteran’s Administration

Warman, D. M., & Beck, A. T. (2003, June). Cognitive behavioral therapy. Retrieved from http://www.nami.org/Content/NavigationMenu/Inform_Yourself/About_Mental_Illness/About_Treatments_and_Supports/Cognitive-Behavioral_Therapy.htm