A Hard-earned Nervous Breakdown

Chapter 3, Part 3

Finally, after 20 years of high-octane flight, I suffered a hard-earned nervous breakdown in 1988. At the time, I was working as a feature writer on an alternative newspaper in Chico, California, where I had ended up, not by design, but by serendipity. That was also what drove every other phase of my life.

Dust Bowl photograph

Dust Bowl

Increasingly, the failed love affairs, missed opportunities, bad moves, lack of commitment, and repressed emotions were piling up mentally. My subconscious mind had developed into one of those melancholy black-and-white photos of the Dust Bowl, with windblown silt accumulating in every nook and cranny.

Then my foolhardy past finally caught up with me, touched off by an especially painful romance with a lovely, clever, but angst-ridden Spanish divorcee, who simultaneously embraced me out of desperation with one arm but shoved me away out of fear with the other.

This conflict doomed us from the beginning. I suppose she was terrified of another commitment like the one just shattered by her husband after 22 years of marriage. But, at the same time, she was insecure, confused, needy; and here I was, a kind, smitten man, who gave her a willing shoulder to cry on. All for my own selfish reasons, natch!

My girlfriend’s predicament touched me in ways I’d never felt before. I was moved by her eyes welling with wet and her lips trembling at the indignity of being thrust into the scary role of single mother for three children. She gave me urges and compulsions that were quite foreign to me and the irresponsible life I’d led. I longed to care for her and her children, ached for commitment, devoted all my passion to being with her.

Which, of course, was exactly what she didn’t want. As she often said, “I might love you, Charlie, but if I ever have to testify in court, I’ll deny it.”

She wanted love without calling it that, emotional support with no strings attached, sex without the kids finding out, and a relationship without ever mentioning that term. In other words, she wanted the person I’d always been before meeting her. How’s that for karma?

I was a heat-seeking missile homing in. And she was the one woman anywhere whose body heat was capable of bringing back so much afterglow from my childhood: danger, excitement, human bondage, frustration, futility, pain, anxiety, obsession, abandonment. Most of all, she resurrected the knowledge that I was never really good enough for anybody to love.

Buddhists, I would later find out, refer to this sort of synchronicity, when two star-crossed people somehow find each other across the vast reaches of time and space, as “interdependent origination.” Everything happens as if by accident. But accident is only happenstance for accidentally on purpose.

As Francesca Freemantle, author of Luminous Emptiness: Understanding the Tibetan Book of the Dead, writes about interdependent origination on the Buddhadhama website:

“According to this law, nothing has independent, permanent, or absolute existence. Everything is part of a limitless web of interconnections and undergoes a continual process of transformation. Every appearance arises from complex causes and conditions, and in turn combines with others to produce countless effects.”

Or, as the lyrics of Hello Young Lovers put the same proposition:

“I know how it feels to have wings on your heels,
And to fly down the street in a trance.
You fly down a street on the chance that you meet,
And you meet — not really by chance.”

Soon our chancy romance, which had begun so passionately, as so many impossible affairs do, disintegrated into serial bickering.

Upper Bidwell Park Panorama

Bidwell Park, Chico, California

Meanwhile, I became increasingly isolated. The frustration of our love life triggered born-again agony from my childhood, pain so deep and repressed that it bubbled up through me with molten force. Suddenly and without warning, all the pain I’d been running away from for decades washed over me, overwhelmed me, paralyzed me. All I could think of was killing myself.

Before long, I couldn’t do anything, even the most mundane tasks of newspaper work, without breaking into tears; a skill not necessarily in the job description for a hard-boiled reporter. During my daily long-distance runs along the woodsy trails of Bidwell Park in Chico, I would often end up sitting on the ground, hyperventilating, rocking back and forth as I sobbed uncontrollably. What a mess I was!

Only the intervention of my former girlfriend and constant friend, Rachel, saved my life. Operating from a distance in Massachusetts, she telephoned some compassionate and kind-hearted friends to come and rescue me before I could do myself harm.

After that close call, I took refuge at an ironic and iconic last resort, especially for any fallen-away Catholic like me. It was a Trappist monastery outside Chico where the monks were kind enough to take me in for eight months, much like my grandfather had done so many years before. I became the abbey’s unofficial basket case, penniless poet, and atheist in residence.

Guest Chapel with half-moon window

Guest Chapel with half-moon window

One of the daily jobs I did to earn my keep at the abbey was cleaning the small cinder-block visitor’s chapel, which featured a half-moon window, located above the entrance and throwing morning light onto the altar and tabernacle where the consecrated hosts were kept. Oddly enough, thousands of flies, evidently escaped from a nearby cattle ranch, began gathering on the inside of this sun-burnished window every morning. There they shat with gusto, leaving specks everywhere, and collectively buzzed with a dull throb and devilish delight.

This racket was an unseemly distraction for the guests, many of whom had made long pilgrimages to the abbey so they could take retreats from stressful lives. It became my task to climb a 10-foot ladder each day and vacuum up the pulsating swarm of flies. Problem was, as soon as I sucked them all into the paper dust bag of my old Hoover, more flies would begin to butt and bicker and bat against the glass.

Every day in every way, this exercise in futility seemed to embody the life I’d created for myself in that half-moon window of opportunity allotted me on earth. I had made myself into the Lord of the Flies.

In the fullness of time, however, this unlikely refuge I was given at the abbey, with its ancient rituals, kindly monks, and cloistered way of life, provided the sanctuary I needed to confront my demons and gradually heal myself. It was my moment of truth in an accidental Sangri-La. At the monastery over the months, I spent my time meditating, reading spiritual books, daydreaming about the enduring mysteries of existence, running, and mulling over my inner life, which I had heretofore treated as a leper with a bell.

Grapes in the monastery vineyard

The monastery vineyard, a living metaphor for the fruits of my spiritual life

Deeply aware that I had already wasted most of my life escaping from reality, I began to concentrate on the supernatural hum, those subtle spiritual undercurrents, which operate just below everyday life. This became my lifelong quest.

There at the abbey and in the following years, after I left, I gradually discovered that, much like the nature so closely observed by Thoreau and other Transcendentalists, the spiritual world is with us all the time, and largely beyond the notice of human awareness. As if reflecting the highly organized and law-abiding nature described in Walden, spirituality works according to a set of immutable natural laws.

During the ensuing years, I realized that, for me at least, the angst often diagnosed as psychological distress is really spiritual distress.

And so went my search for meaning as I continued to hunt for something to believe in for the next 20 years after my turning point at the monastery.

Undoubtedly, momentous spiritual moments evolve from momentous personal crises. Since I was perpetually embroiled in crisis, or so it seemed, that should have provided me with plenty of chances for spiritual redemption. As one of my oldest friends once responded after I informed him I was having a midlife crisis: “Charlie, your whole life has been one long midlife crisis.” Amen to that.

Which leads me to my latest crisis, proving to be my penultimate. It’s also the very reason why you are reading Back to Walden at this exact moment. To learn why, go to the following section.