My Struggle

My apologies for not reading your blogs lately. I’ve not been feeling well. After my quit date for espresso drinking, I have been experiencing pain in my stomach, insomnia, and a generalized feeling of depression.  I felt a slight, pin-prickling sensation in my gut as I was riding my bike over to the Navigate Counseling Clinic the other day, and then, an hour before my counseling session, an excruciating pain erupted in my stomach, and I when I was in Dana’s office, this was all I could talk about. I told her that I was at the crossroads of my life.

When I confided with Dana my fears of relapse, she suggested writing a letter to myself, reminding me of the distress I was feeling at that very moment. She handed me a clipboard with a blank sheet of paper on it and a writing pen. I scribbled a few lines, but I rewrote and expanded upon them days later, when the inflammation in my insides had cleared up somewhat. This is the text of the letter:

Coffee is not for everyone, regardless of what the media may insinuate. You can look at black coffee sitting inside a coffee pot, and you can see for yourself how toxic this substance is. You know that if you keep drinking this stuff, indulging in your pathological espresso habit, it will lead to ferocious stomach pain, which will, in turn, lead to stomach ulcers and possibly your own death. Espresso is killing you. Think of the pain you are feeling right now. Your abdomen fells like it is in flames, and it hurts at the same time, as if you had swallowed a ball of molten lead. Whenever you fill your stomach with food, this same sensation — this gruesome pain radiating throughout your stomach onto other parts of your body — to your chest and to your guts — affects not only your stomach, but your esophagus and your small intestine as well.

Think of these things the next time you have the desire to purchase a cup of coffee — a substance so addictive that you lose control of your behavior, indulging in a few fleeting moments of pleasure, a hideous gratification which will lead you down a gilded pathway to bloodcurdling agony. You may feel good after you drink your first cup, but you know perfectly well that once you get started, you cannot stop. The next thing you realize is that you will have to undergo medical procedures, revealing the damage you have done to yourself. Relapsing is no longer acceptable. You must quit forever, starting now — right now! — you must not drink it ever again!

This is the only prescription for good health, the only way you’ll ever feel normal. What is the point of everything else if you lose your health? Nothing else seems to matter when you’re in pain. You can forget about doing the things which are important to you, because your mind will be consumed by suffering. Life will lose its luster, and lying in bed will be all that’s left for you. And this is not the way you want to live — you want to live the active life, a life filled with physical and intellectual activity.

The myth of the coffee achiever is a falsehood. Put it away, and live a better life.

When I returned to Dana’s office the following week, she had noticed that I was feeling better, and that I had a smile on my face. I replied that I didn’t have a pain in my gut that day, but if I thought about it, I could feel every contour within the inside of my stomach. I showed her the letter I had written and she spent some time reading it. I told her that I stayed sick for a whole week this time, and I had written the letter when the pain finally eased off some.

And I told Dana that I had entered a convenance store early one morning to buy a slushy, when I saw some men inside the store, who were preparing to go to work, drinking coffee, and just watching this made me want to throw up. Dana mentioned that in my letter I had written about a toxic substance, which looked like water mixed with tar, and I could imagine those men pouring this down their food pipes and into their stomachs. There was no chance I would relapse right now, but I was uncertain about the future. I asked Dana would the cravings eventually go away. She said that they come onto different people in different ways. I might never feel a real craving again, but then I may experience them like the waves upon a mighty ocean.

Dana had been searching the internet for resources I could use to assist me in quitting. She handed me a document that she printed out. Dana had found a website entitled Caffeine Addicts Anonymous, which provided a phone number to call on certain days of the week, and at certain times, which would ask for an access code (which Dana gave me), and this would make me a party in a conference call with other support group members. There would be readings from a book Confessions of a Caffeine Addict, by Marine Kushner, and a teleconference meeting for twelve step caffeine support, similar in nature to the program for Alcoholics Anonymous.

I mentioned to Dana my appointment with Dr. Ali, the gastroenterologist. I had seen him three years ago, and the next day I would be returning to his office again for the same reasons. I was hoping that he would think I was telling the truth when I would say to him that it was espresso which was hurting my stomach, and not alcohol. I told Dana the embarrassment I was going to feel, after having imposed self-inflicted harm upon myself, but, even though I would be standing before him once again, I was going to tell him the truth. I viewed this process as a form of punishment — having to confess and to be put under anesthesia, having to endure the anxiety of what they might find inside of me.

I told Dana that my other goals had been put on hold because of what I was struggling with now. I told her that I hadn’t forgotten about them, however. I brought up the stigma of having to ride my bike from place to place in Robersonville, not being able to afford a car and being the only person in town who rides a bike. I told Dana the story of what I witnessed the other day. While I was riding in Laura’s car, we passed through an intersection, and we saw a group of cyclists stopped at a stop sign. I noticed they were dressed differently from me. They looked as if they had bought their clothing from a sporting goods store, which made them appear that they were not riding their bikes in order to transport themselves, but were out riding for pleasure and for their health. I though it would help eliminate the stigma if I imitated them. When I had left the campus of the medical school after my previous therapy session, I stopped by the bike shop to get my tires inflated, and I bought a pair of designer biking shorts. When it was time for me to travel to the food bank, with my large hiking backpack strapped to my back, I wore those shorts, along with a pair of specially made protective gloves, designed to keep my hands from going numb on the handlebars, and when I arrived at the housing projects to stand in the bread line, I received a complement on my biking outfit from one of the people who were there to get food. They could see how independent I was, carrying my own food home on a bicycle, and I began to feel respected once again.

Dana and I discussed how the stigma isn’t there when I’m riding my bike through Greenville. Dana said that she often sees students and professors alike riding their bikes toward campus wearing street clothes, and no one thinks badly of them. I replied that in Robersonville, you see men in pickup trucks smoking cigarettes, getting off work after getting their hands dirty. They don’t respect a person on a bicycle. They view me as a bum living on welfare. In Greenville, everyone goes about their daily business without being curious about the people they see. In Robersonville, you keep bumping into the same people in different places, and everyone tends to be inquisitive and judgemental.

As Dana wrapped up the therapy session, she told me that she admired my resilience and my hard work in attaining my goals. I replied to her that when I come to the clinic, I don’t feel that people are judging me, condescending to me, or putting me down.

To disregard what the world thinks of us is not only arrogant but utterly shameless.

— Cicero

The following day, Laura took me to Vidant Gastroenterology to see Dr. Ali. I asked her to come into the examination room with me to offer moral support, which she did. When the doctor came in, he remembered me from last time I was in there, and I told him the truth. He didn’t seem critical, but he asked me how long had it been since I quit drinking espresso by the pot. I told him I had quit completely seven days ago. He asked me where the pain was located, and I placed my hand directly over my stomach. “Is there any blood in your stool?” he asked. I replied no. “Is you stool completely black?” I replied no. Dr. Ali asked me to lay back on the examination bed and I pulled my shirt up. He applied pressure to different sections of my stomach. “Do you feel pain in any of these places?” he asked. It was obvious that I didn’t, because I did not flinch. He told me not to drink things which irritate my stomach anymore. He gave me the option of skipping the procedure, since I wasn’t displaying any symptoms of an ulcer (it was just that the insides of my stomach felt like sandpaper, and on a scale of one to ten, my pain level at this time was a two or a three), but I told him we had better take a look inside anyhow just to make sure.

The doctor shook my hand and Laura’s, then left the room. Then a nurse came in, brightening up our day with banter and joking. “We’re going to have to put you in time-out!” she said to me. I replied that I had learned my lesson, and I wasn’t going to drink coffee anymore. The nurse typed in some information into the computer, then handed me a questionnaire to fill out and to bring back the day of my procedure. She told me not to drink water or eat any food after midnight on the big day. I would be under anaesthesia, and I would need a driver to take me back home. Laura said she would do this. The nurse handed me a purple sheet with some writing upon it. This is what it said:

To help determine your medical treatment, you have been asked to undergo a procedure called an upper endoscopy. This is an examination of your esophagus, food pipe, and stomach. The procedure is performed using an endoscope or gastrointestinal fiberscope. The endoscope is a narrow, flexible tube. It is passed through the mouth and the back of the throat into the stomach. It will not interfere with your breathing. Abnormalities seen by x-ray can be confirmed. Others that are too small to be seen on x-ray may also be able to be detected. If the doctor sees a suspicious area, he can pass an instrument through the endoscopy tube and take a small piece of tissue called a biopsy. You will be given medication through an IV to make you relaxed and sleepy. You will either gargle or have your throat sprayed with a local anesthetic. The procedure is well tolerated, with little or no discomfort. Following the exam, you recover for about an hour. A nurse will be checking your blood pressure and checking on you frequently. You may have a minor sore throat after the procedure and during the next day.

I was all set up and my procedure was scheduled for three weeks from now. When Laura and I left the doctor’s office, returning to Robersonville, there was a huge thunderstorm. The summer solstice was tomorrow.

 

The End is the Beginning

It is always nice to look  at your blogs, reading about your lives and about what interests you. I find your works thought-provoking and uplifting, and I would like to especially thank those of you who keep returning here, who hit the “like” button and sometimes leave comments. I want you to know that I thoroughly appreciate the interest that you take in my life, in my struggles, in my relationship with Laura, and in my small town. Of course, if you read me and wish to remain anonymous, and not hit the “like” button, I’m writing for you, too. All of you who follow me, and those of you who just stop by for one visit and remain silent, I sincerely hope you will return, for my story is a never-ending saga, with chapters that always keep coming — the chronicles of a life worth living — regardless of its intermittent difficulties.

A lot has transpired since my last letter to you, so I guess I’ll just start at the beginning. It was the afternoon after my appointment with my primary care physician.

While I was at my desk reading a book, overindulging in my espresso habit, feeling euphoric and deeply engaged in the words, phrases, and clauses which painted a picture of philosophic thought which reached out to me across the centuries, being written by an ancient Roman stoic, who felt he could teach others how to think and how to live, my phone rang and a nurse from Dr. Jackson’s office come on the line with my test results. The news was disturbing. It was concerning my coffee intake, which was so pathological that this acidic substance was stripping away the linings of my stomach, and I was issued another warning, being told to decrease it. When I was in the examination room the previous day, Dr. Jackson had told me to quit drinking it altogether.

The next morning was my appointment with my psychotherapist, Dana, and I had planned to use my whole session to discuss this serious problem. I arose before dawn, picked up my tablet, opening the app for television station WITN, listening to the local news and weather forecast. Meteorologist Jim Howard came on, displaying a map of the southern United States, where a tropical low pressure cell was slowly moving in our direction, with a stationary front emanating from it which transversed my state of North Carolina, that would stall out today, bringing afternoon thunder showers beginning at noon. I checked the weather app on my iPhone — it agreed with this assessment — and I checked the doppler radar map and there was no rain currently in sight, so I went into my closet, retrieving my rain suit for my trip back home, rolling it up and placing it in my backpack. I also placed my book in there, wrapped it up in plastic along with my wallet and my iPhone, to protect them from the soaking rain.

I got my gear together, strapping on my backpack and my helmet, taking my mountain bike out of the shed and turning on its flashing tail-light, leaving town at sunrise. As I was pedaling out on the open road — alone, with no motorists in sight — I couldn’t help but look up at the sky, at its white mountainous clouds streaked with bluish tints, with the obliterated rising sun giving off recurrent hues of flaming fire, with a hazy perspective, evocative of an impressionist painting. As I traveled past the crops in the fields, I noticed that the wheat had been harvested, leaving behind brown carpets upon the land, while the corn was sprouting, their long green foliage reaching out for the coming rain, as we had been in a condition of draught for over a week now.

When I was half way to Greenville, I witnessed two miniature dogs crossing the road together; as I passed them, they eyed me with curiosity and I was surprised that they didn’t chase me. Later on, I saw a dead carcass upon the road, with two carrion birds receiving their morning meal, flying upwards in fear as I passed, but quickly returning after I was gone. As I grew closer towards the city and the traffic was picking up, I was appalled to see someone turning into an industrial park on a motorcycle without wearing a helmet. Soon, I was traveling along the sidewalks, across the bridge and into the downtown area. As I was passing through, I noticed that occasionally I would meet someone who was walking towards me, traveling in the opposite direction upon our common pathway, remaining in their personal bubble of anonymity. I would say, “Good morning,” to someone, who was retreating to their side of the walkway, as I was retreating towards mine, but they would never return my greeting, but would fain to make eye contact, always looking straight ahead and going about their own business without acknowledgement.

This was something I could live with — passing by people I would never see again, everyone minding their own business and nobody judging the other, remaining in their own protective selves, focused on their business at hand, and not knowing or caring what the other person was doing. It was much a much different scene in Robersonville. It was as if I had traveled from one world into another — into a larger, more cosmopolitan, more sophisticated world, one that was too fast paced for me and too expensive, but one that felt much more insulated and comfortable.

As I made it across to the other end of the city, arriving at the campus of the Brody Medical School, finding a place designed to secure a bicycle, calling Laura and my mom to say good morning as they began their daily tasks at home, I went up into the library to find a quiet place among the medical books, trying to keep a low profile among the students. I found an empty desk in a corner, unwrapped my book and my iPhone from out of the plastic, placed my phone on vibrate and kept up with the time, and opened my volume of Epictetus. As was reading his extemporaneous dialogs, I became immersed in the wisdom of an ancient Roman slave, who seemed to be admonishing me directly, with a give and take which seemed to put words into my own mouth.

Has my doctor given me good news or bad news? I should not be beholden to him either way, so he can become puffed up with his pride. Is a certain medical circumstance beyond my will to change? I should become totally indifferent to that. It is appointed to all men to die, what is the difference if he should die sooner than later? If it be within my will to change something, what difference does it make? It is that I will have control, and I should change something I wish to in order to achieve courage and virtue. And if I they should lock me up in prison, what difference would that make? They might have my body, but they certainly don’t have my mind. I could be free inside if I chose to be. And if I concerned myself with my cloak, being morbidly aware of other’s judgements of my riches or my poverty, I would be controlled by them. Why would I give them the power? Why would I give them the control? Death is a great equalizer of mankind. No rich man can pay me to die for him, he must die on his own! It matters not what the public thinks. It is my own excellence which is at question here, not theirs. Every man must wipe his own nose! I should be totally blind to the things I cannot change, change those things which are within my power, and conform to my own will, and not to the will of the collective other.

As I was reading lines such as these for an hour and a half, noticing the time on my phone was getting nearer to my appointment time, I packed up my belongings and walked inside the elevator, and, as I was leaving the library, I saw a student wearing scrubs carrying a cup of coffee. I wondered where he got it from. And I walked down a small flight of steps, down a hallway towards another elevator, arriving on the fourth floor, following the arrows on the walls and arrived at the Navigate Counseling Clinic. I picked up a magazine — I don’t remember the title of it — but it was on mindfulness, and as I began to read an article on how mindfulness can help you conquer addiction, a cheerful student entered the waiting area. “You here to see Dana?” she asked. I affirmed, and Dana entered wearing a jacket embossed in purple and gold, the official colors of East Carolina University.

Dana had an infectious smile on her face, expressing an eagerness — a personal dynamism — along with a generalized optimism which helped lift the overcast darkness covering the firmament of my mind. We went inside her office, and I told her the news I received from Dr. Jackson’s. My coffee habit was out of control, and I was suffering with daily stomach pain. Dr. Jackson had repeatedly tried to get me to wean myself down to two cups a day, but I had always failed, so now she was telling me to quit altogether, and ordered an upper gastrointestinal examination, which involved putting me under anesthesia and running a cord down my throat with a camera on its end, to take pictures of the inside of my stomach. Then I told Dana the bad news about my test results. I had received a phone call telling me that I was slightly anemic, which indicated that I might be bleeding internally. Dr. Jackson suspects that the bleeding was inside my stomach. It was coffee that was doing this to me. This made my second gastrointestinal examination as a result of my pathological espresso habit, and I was also on the pathway of contracting cancer of the esophagus, and now I had to quit again — forever this time, never to return — and I desperately needed help, because I needed to beat it this time.

Dana said that she was versed in addiction counseling. She presented me with a clipboard with a form,, which had a list of statements upon it which I was to finish, and handed me a pen. The paper had the heading “The Willingness and Action Plan.” On it, I was to list a specific goal.

I told Dana that I wished to give up caffeine for good and not use it as a crutch. Coffee gives me a feeling of motivation, of being energetic and alert, but I have quit before, and I know that it is not necessary. Coffee, to me, is like a friend who plays cruel tricks, who lures me with pleasure, then burns me with pain. When I start drinking it, I don’t know when to stop. I also drink it for emotional reasons. I drink it when I’m angry. I drink it when I’m frustrated. I drink it when I’m bored. When I had my first gastrointestinal exam, I was drinking a whole pot in the morning and a pot in the afternoon. I just cannot do things like this anymore.

Dana asked me about my values underlying my goal to quit.

I have been worried about my health in connection with this for a long time. I have been experiencing stomach pain for nearly four years now. I want better health. And I do not wish to live a life in pursuit of pleasure; there is a word I’m looking for in what I want my life to represent, but the word is escaping me — is it virtue? — no, is it self-reliance, or industriousness? — no, it’s not that, either. Temperance! That’s the word I’m looking for. I wish to live a life of temperance.

Dana asked me what my specific actions would be to achieve my goal of quitting.

I have to throw out the container of coffee in my kitchen, along with eliminating all the paraphernalia and apparatus used in brewing and consuming it. This means throwing my coffee pot into the garbage. The coffee cups have to go, too, including my favorite mug which has some sentimental value attached to it. There is a distinctive logo on the cup that I am fond of. It is an advertisement for a restaurant in Robersonville, one that went out of business years ago, that used to be a favorite early morning rendezvous for some of the townspeople when I first moved there, called “The Filling Station.” The logo is of a fish, holding itself erect upon his tail like a cobra, with fins on his left and on his right, holding a knife and fork respectively, with a charming human expression upon his face, along with an open and smiling mouth. They don’t make these mugs anymore — it is of historic significance — but I really need to let it go. And I have to throw all this out on the day the garbage men pick up the trash, otherwise I will dig around in the refuse later, trying to excavate enough coffee grounds to make just one more cup after I am supposed to have quit. I will not be able to consume energy drinks or hot tea anymore, either.

Dana told me to consider the thoughts and memories, the feelings and sensations — and the urges — that I was willing to withstand in order to achieve my goal.

I have thoughts which I can almost hear, of an inner dialog, of a friendly voice seducing me, “Oh, c’mon! It’s not gonna hurt you. Think of how good its gonna make you feel!” I will have a sense of anticipation, possibly salivating — knowing the intense euphoria I will feel and how happy I will be for a few short hours if I do it — and if I have a book to read, I will feel the ultimate bliss as I surrender my mind to the voice of its author. I have quit before, and I will experience sensations of fatigue — a dullness of mind — but these are false impressions. One time after I quit drinking coffee, I felt so exhausted I didn’t know what to do, but then I took a trip on my bicycle and did just fine. The sense of lethargy is all in my mind and not in my body. The intellectual fog I will be in is a mere illusion. I will be able to read and concentrate just as well without coffee. After awhile, these withdrawal symptoms will fade away, but as I feel better and my stomach stops hurting, I’ll feel an urge — an overwhelming enticement! — to do it just one more time. Then I’ll start walking to the local convenance store to buy a single cup of coffee a day, and after about a week of doing this, I’ll get tired of walking and paying too much,  then I’ll go to the grocery store to get one of those large containers of espresso they sell there, and then the cycle of pleasure and pain will start once again. One time I relapsed because I witnessed some people drinking coffee in front of me, and I felt a sense of deprivation. I need to be aware of this and stay away from these situations for a long while.

Dana asked me what would be useful to remind myself in connection to quitting.

Withdrawal sensations that flutter in my mind will be telling me lies, telling me that I will never feel motivation again without espresso, telling me that I’ll never achieve intellectually without it, telling me that I’ll always be controlled by a brown substance with a distinct aroma, that I’ll never be free. But I must break the adamantine chains of dependence — standing squarely upon my own two legs — and to do this for the remainder of my life. It is different this time. I have someone helping me. I must do this.

Dana asked, “If you could break this down into smaller steps, what would they be?”

If I enter a grocery store, to stay out of the coffee aisle. Do not enter a convenance store. Whenever I want to take a walk in the park, I will take an alternate route so I will not go past the Handy Mart. I will not even go close to it. And don’t go near a Starbucks or any other coffee shop.

Dana asked me what my smallest, easiest step in quitting espresso would be.

I will throw out the coffee, along with the cup and the pot, the morning the garbage men pick up the trash (but I want to drink it one last time before they arrive), then that will be the first day of my new life.

Dana told me I could call the clinic’s help line if the temptation struck and I wasn’t sure I could overcome it. She walked out of the office, bringing in the person who would be checking the messages, and introduced me to her. We determined that my quit day would be this coming Tuesday at 7:00 AM. Dana gave me the sheet off her clipboard that I had filled out concerning my addiction. I knew that this would be one of the hardest things I ever set out to do. We talked about Alcoholic’s Anonymous, the twelve step program where people go to meetings to help them break their addiction to alcohol. After six weeks of sobriety, a member would receive a chip. After six weeks of being caffeine free, what would I like for a chip?

I told Dana that I wanted to order a set of books from Amazon: the complete works of the modern philosopher Michel Foucault. I would bring them in with my backpack and show them to her if I succeeded. My six-week date would be July 23rd, and I would mark it on my calendar when I returned home.

I left Dana’s office with a plan. When I exited the School of Human Services building, I looked up at the sky, noticing that Jim Howard’s weather forecast, with all his maps and doppler radar, was incorrect. He said it would be raining by now, but I didn’t need my wet suit after all. I sat upon my bicycle and returned home all dry, three hours before the rains came.

Several days went by before my quit date, with the cycle of uncontrollable espresso drinking and stomach pain continuing. Then the day of reckoning arrived. Early that morning, I made my last pot of coffee, then took the lid off my trash can, took hold of my yellow plastic container of espresso, which had the image of an Hispanic woman printed upon it with the words, “Cafe Bustelo Party Size!” I removed the lid to it, dumping its contents into the trash, and throwing in the container after it. When I finished my coffee, I looked at my favorite mug.

“Please don’t throw me away,” it said to me, “You’ll miss me after I’m gone!”

The coffee mug went into the trash also, and I tied up the trash bag with the pleading imp inside. Then I got out another trash bag and unplugged the coffee pot, running cold water all over it to cool it down. As I was placing the percolator in the bag, along with my stack of coffee filters, it was as if it had a voice that could speak.

“How can you do this to me? I’m your best friend!” it exclaimed.

“I don’t need friends like you,” was my silent reply, as I tied up the trash bag with the coffee pot inside.

I carried the two bags of misery to my dumpster outside, dropping them in, rolling the dumpster out to the sidewalk in front of my apartment. By the time the sun comes up, the garbage truck would arrive, and the psychoactive drug inside the can, along with all its drug paraphernalia, will be gone for good.

Goodbye and don’t come back!

Counseling and Therapy

It is the middle of the night and I cannot sleep, so I thought I would take the time to write to you. Hope this letter finds you doing well.

I arrived early for my appointment with my psychiatrist, Dr Saba, last week, hoping he would call me into his office before the scheduled time, because there was a girl in the waiting room sobbing, and this was beginning to upset me. When Dr. Saba called my name and led me toward his desk and shut the door behind us, he immediately placed the scales in front of me, and I weighed in at 160.3 pounds. He became concerned about all the weight I was losing, and said he could look at me and tell I was getting too thin. I told him I thought the scales were wrong, because I had a bathroom scale at home and I weighed more on it than this. Becoming obsessed with weighing myself, I had noticed that when I ate a meal, I would gain two pounds; when I had a bowel movement, I would lose a pound; when I urinated, I would lose six-tenths of a pound; and I always weighed less in the morning, when I got out of bed, than I did at night before bed. Dr. Saba told me that this was natural for a person, and I replied that whenever I stepped on his scales during an appointment, I felt like I was taking a test, fearing that I would fail. “It isn’t like that,” Dr. Saba said, attempting to comfort me. I told him I wasn’t fasting anymore, and he responded by thanking me. “What kinds of foods do you like?” he asked. I told him I liked lintels and rice, I liked bagels, and I liked cheese, among some other things that were not on my diet. “You can have these things twice a week and it won’t hurt you,” Dr Saba said. I told him again that I thought his scales were wrong, so I stepped on them once more. I weighed in this time at 166.4, which was closer to what I weighted on my scales at home.

I told Dr. Saba that I was seeking out more mental health support. I had an appointment scheduled with a psychotherapist, and I was hoping for a great improvement in how I had been feeling. I had gotten involved with an establishment called Navigate, which was part of the East Carolina University medical school. These were the type of therapists I was looking for — people who were good students, who were young and idealistic, who may be inexperienced but didn’t feel jaded or arrogant. Dr. Saba seemed irritated at my descriptions, as if they were a reflection on him, but I didn’t mean it that way. He told me to stay in counseling and to consider the turnover, as the students there would eventually graduate.

When the day to meet my student counselor finally arrived, I rode my mountain bike to Greenville with a great sense of anticipation. I entered the campus of the medical school hours before my appointment, walking into the School of Human Services building, knowing there was a library in there — filled with classic medical texts — where I could sit down, cool off, and read some as I was waiting. I went up into the stacks for a couple of hours, looking through old books on anatomy, physiology, cancer, and personality disorders. I left the library later on and walked past a woman on the housekeeping staff, who was pushing a large broom along a perfectly clean floor in the hallway trying to look busy. I stepped into an elevator, reaching the fourth floor, and I entered the waiting area for Navigate clients, where a college student gave me some paperwork to fill out and sign. She also gave me a handbook. My new counselor was a young woman with short curly hair, who introduced herself as Dana. We found out that we were both “morning people” who enjoyed the aesthetics of the sunrise. Dana said she liked walking her dogs every morning while it was still quiet outside.

We entered an office with a desk and three chairs; I took a seat and placed my bicycle helmet upon the empty one in the corner. Dana closed the door, allowing me to speak my mind — a flood of complaints came out of my mouth. I told her that I was living with stigma, with disrepute affecting almost every aspect of my life. I had only Social Security to live on, being disabled because of mental illness, and I couldn’t afford to buy a car, so I was seen throughout Robersonville riding a bike to get from place to place. Whenever I would go to a store, I had to use a backpack to carry the items I had bought there, or hook the bags on my handlebars, and the people in town could notice this. I couldn’t afford to buy my food at the local Food Lion, so I had to ride my bike to the housing projects to receive my weekly supply from the food bank, using a large backpack I had bought from a sporting goods store that was meant for mountain climbing and hiking. I also lived in subsidized housing, in an apartment complex that everyone in town knew was housing for the handicapped and the indigent.

Dana thought it was interesting that when I rode my street bike in Robersonville, I felt the obloquy of normal people, but when I left town on my mountain bike, I felt that the stigma had melted away. This was because out on the open road I had become anonymous — nobody out there knew me — and passing motorists didn’t realize that I was attempting to transport myself to an appointment, but thought that I was merely an athletic person out for a morning ride. In Robersonville, everyone sees and knows everyone else. The local librarian, Sallie, greets me sometimes when I go in there, saying “I haven’t seen you in a while,” always encouraging me to come in as if she is glad to see me, but addresses me in a maternalistic fashion, as if I were a child who cannot take care of himself, instead of a fully grown adult who is the same age as she. My girlfriend Laura has a friend from church who addresses me as if I were an eight year old. I didn’t think much of it at first, then I began to notice how she would size people up according to the money they had and the property they owned. She was a member of the Robersonville Country Club.

“She’s at the top,” Dana observed.

I told her that there wasn’t much money in Robersonville, and the majority of the people — those who felt they were at the top — weren’t really as wealthy as they seemed to think they were. This was because they had lived in Robersonville all their lives, having no liberal arts education (if they had an education at all), knowing very little about the world outside of Martin County. I told Dana that I won a settlement from a class action lawsuit seven years ago, placing the money in a savings account, adding to it every month. I have low-income with high savings and low debt, while my rent and food subsidies are based upon my income alone. As I continue to save thousands of dollars as the years go by, some of the working people in town, who would pass by me in pickup trucks while I’m on my bike — those who would look down upon me with disrespect, hating me because they resented paying taxes to support me — they didn’t realize that my net worth is probably greater than their own, and this realization is my only way of exposing their ignorance, of giving them all the finger.

The question of whether I can work or not has already been settled, I have amassed proof and evidence in the eyes of the law that I cannot, and I didn’t wish to revisit this in therapy. When I was in the state hospital the first time, I went to vocational rehabilitation and was placed in a job that wasn’t really a good one, but it was the best one I ever had, where the bosses were in the offices screaming at each other, where all the coworkers were nasty and hated one another. I thought that this was what work was all about. Then I got involved with a psychiatrist who was shooting me up full of lithium and other drugs. I didn’t know what his motivation could have been, except maybe to receive kickbacks from the pharmaceutical company, but at the time I trusted him. I would cup both my hands together, filling them with multicolored capsules and pills, filling my mouth with them, washing them down with a big glass of soda. One afternoon, I pulled my car over on the shoulder of the highway — to lean my seat back and rest my eyes for just a moment — when a Good Samaritan approached the side of my car, knocking on my window — I had been sitting there for hours and didn’t know it — and I slowly rolled the window down, and he asked, “Sir, are you all right? Do I need to call someone?”

I didn’t realize how sick my doctor was making me. I was at home seeing visions of disembodied skulls floating in my apartment; I could shut off the lights and watch glowing castles made of rubies and emeralds glistening upon the walls. A week later, I was driving and was pulled over by the police, who shined a flashlight into my eyes, noticing how dilated my pupils were, and I was lucky that I had my huge bag of medicine with me. The policeman told me to go straight back home. If I ever got into an accident while taking that stuff, he was telling me, I could be taken to civil court and be sued. This same week, my boss called me into his office, asking me what was wrong, because my job performance was marginal and my eyes were glassy. I was also experiencing tremors in my hands and my vision was failing. I was gaining weight as my health rapidly deteriorated.

I was a computer operator, and I always printed out memos concerning the other bosses and workers — then, suddenly, the memos were about me — and my boss would rush into the computer room and tear them off the printer so I couldn’t read them. My coworkers in my department soon became suspicious. “Where did you used to live before you came here to work?” they would ask me. I couldn’t tell them that I had lived in Cherry Hospital for two years and three months — where I lived among the lobotomized and the insane — treated by quacks who couldn’t keep a job anywhere else.

And I wasn’t employed much longer, either. After a couple more years of struggling to find work — changing doctors as often as I got fired by my bosses, getting evicted time after time, getting my car repossessed, and moving from town to town — finally, I realized I just couldn’t do it anymore. I ended up in Central State Hospital for sixteen months because I could no longer work and support myself, and I needed to be in a place where I could get my medication and take a bath. There was a forensic unit there, where most of the inmates in there had committed murder. The director of the hospital had created an open ward, to ease the overcrowding in forensic and to warehouse the other patients who were not placed in there by a judge — patients who could leave but had no home to go to — while the social workers would try to find them a place to live, forcing them out to most anywhere, and, while being trapped in the community placement building, we were all treated as criminals. And I got involved with a woman in there who killed her two teenaged sons with a shotgun as they were sleeping in their beds, then she turned the rifle on herself, but failed in the attempt, shooting herself in the thigh. She showed no remorse for her crime. She said she was only trying to send her children to heaven. She thought that if she followed all the rules to the letter, being always sweet with the staff, she would get discharged just like any other patient, living and working on the outside as if she had never done anything wrong.

“I don’t want to talk about this anymore,” I told Dana, interrupting my story. “I don’t know why I got on this subject. I just keep talking and talking while you remain silent. I guess it’s as if I was lying on a couch rambling to Sigmund Freud about my terrible childhood.”

“That’s the thing about therapy,” Dana replied, “Sometimes you begin discussing past trauma and you leave the session feeling awful.”

Dana asked me about my risk for suicide. I replied that I wouldn’t want to give my enemies the satisfaction. What I wanted was longevity, because the first half of my life was not really worth it, but now I wanted to live my best possible life.

Dana continued by asking how I found out about the Navigate project. I told her about Laura’s stay in the hospital at Vidant Medical Center, and they had these brochures for the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill in the waiting area. I took one, planning to go to a support group meeting, but when I called the contact number, they said the only meetings were at night, and, therefore, I couldn’t attend. What I was really looking for was a therapist, and they gave me the number for Navigate, and I made an appointment. It took a lot out of me to call and ask for help, knowing that a stranger was going to be at the other end of the line.

Dana began asking me what I wished to accomplish in therapy. I told her I no longer wished to be a recluse. I wanted to separate Laura’s problems from my own, and not allow her to monopolize my social life. I wanted to have a better outlook, and to deal with stigmatizing circumstances better. I also wanted to feel happier and to function in a more healthy fashion.

When the session was over, I almost left the office and forgot my helmet. I asked Dana where was a good place to secure a bike, and we looked out one of the windows, down upon the courtyard below, where my bike was locked by a cable to a tree. She said there were places on the grounds especially made to park a bike. If I should see one of the groundskeepers, he would be able to tell me where these places were. After we said goodbye until my next appointment, I turned my phone back on and called Laura as I was leaving the grounds of the medical school.

She was planning to have a yard sale this Saturday.

Pets are Family

When we bring a friendly dog or cat into our families, it is a companion animal and he or she looks up to us as a child, needing the care and attention we would give to a human nestling. This means keeping a close eye upon them, not allowing them to roam freely all over town.

This is the story of a pet owner who was irresponsible. As I was riding my bike back and forth to Laura’s house, I began to notice this friendly mid-sized dog with a collar around her neck, who would follow me a couple of blocks, then return to the same neighborhood she came from. One morning, there were dense clouds in the sky, so I decided to walk to Laura’s from Robersonville Manor with an umbrella in my hand, folded, in case of a sudden downpour. This same dog was running toward a man nearby, getting quite close to him, as he was clipping the grass in front of the church next door, getting in his way and making a nuisance of herself. “Go home!” the man exclaimed as he was trimming the grass around a pole, “Go back home!” Soon, her eyes fell upon me and she started running in my direction. I had never seen her in my neighborhood before, and she was probably lost.

She followed me down Main Street, with her mouth gaped open and her tongue hanging out, trotting recklessly in the middle of the street. An elderly woman went out of her house to walk to the mailbox, and, the dog catching sight of her, began running in her direction. The woman stooped down to pet her, then she started fumbling with the dog’s collar. The old woman motioned to me to come over. When I approached the two of them, the woman declared, “We really should find out who the owner is. Here is the phone number on his tag of her collar.” I took my iPhone out of my pocket, setting it so the woman could dial the number, handing it to her, but she kept holding the tag and wouldn’t take the phone. “Can’t you dial it?” I asked. “I can’t see,” was her impassioned reply. I bent over and got a hold of the dog tag, dialing the number of the Williamston Veterinary Hospital, giving out the number stamped on the dog’s rabies tag. “The dog is lost and we’re trying to find the owner,” I told the person on the other end of the line. She asked me for my name and phone number, but I would not be responsible for someones else’s dog. As I was handing the phone to the old woman, she said, “Maybe we can get her into my garage.” The woman was talking on my phone when I got hold of the dog’s collar and attempted to guide her towards the house. The canine began to struggle, dancing in circles as the collar entangled my fingers and started choking her. As I tussled to get my fingers loose, the dog buried her teeth into the flesh of my arm. We pried ourselves loose from each other and the animal ran across the street. “Your damned dog just bit me!” I exclaimed. The old woman left my phone on the ground beside the mailbox, chasing after the bitch as it was defecating in her neighbor’s front yard. I retrieved my phone and walked away incredibly angry.

When I arrived at Laura’s house, I showed her the dog bite and she put some alcohol on it. I wondered if the rabies tag was still current. When I called the veterinary hospital again, I told the receptionist that I had gotten bit by the dog I called about earlier, asking if her rabies vaccination was still current. The receptionist replied that she couldn’t give out that information due to confidentiality laws; I would have to call Animal Control to find this out. I immediately called those people, informing them of what happened. The officer described a long, drawn out process. A rabies vaccination, however, was sort of like a measles inoculation, and even though it requires booster shots, usually one will last for the lifetime of the animal. The officer would eventually inform the owner about the dog bite and the violation of the town’s leash law.

I used my iPhone and took a picture of the teeth marks on my arm in case I should need one.

Mother

I hope you have had a good week. Now that I’m making another attempt to write you once again, I must get my thoughts organized as best I can, and overcome writer’s block like every other author. When Tolstoy got stuck, he drew tiny pictures of faces upon his manuscripts. Whenever my mind goes blank, I just listen to ambient music and stare at the screen. I never know when my ideas will ultimately find connection, and this is reflected in my writings. As a reader, you will probably never know what you are walking into. Just like the tourists and worshippers in Sri Lanka on Easter Sunday didn’t know what they were walking into — eight synchronized blasts carried out by suicide bombers, ripping through four churches simultaneously, being packed with believers — leaving behind mayhem and anarchy —  pews torn asunder, roofs blown open, and a blood spattered statue of Jesus Christ overseeing the dreadful carnage. Some of the explosions were at popular hotel restaurants — killing the innocents — as they were at their morning meal. And a video surfaced, showing the bombers with grey turbans hiding their faces, joining hands to pledge allegiance — making a promise, in the name of religion, to sacrifice their own lives to the cause of mass murder — thinking that this vile atrocity would send them straight to heaven.  Over two hundred people died that day, the death toll being recalibrated as a result of mismatched body parts. Islamist extremists were to blame for this, and it came out that the perpetrators were affluent and well-educated, most of them members of the same wealthy family. This incident — highly organized, showing a high degree of sophistication and expertise — was an attack on the West in general, and the country of Sri Lanka, an island nation right off the coast of India, a peace-loving society after the close of an excruciating civil war, after allowing its security apparatus to grow lax, with the terrorists taking advantage, now has armed guards with machine guns standing in front of its mosques, temples, and churches.

When I called my mother the next morning, we began talking about this act of barbarism. “Christians are being persecuted all around the world!” she exclaimed, “Even in this country! They have taken prayer out of schools, Christians are being forced to cater to homosexuals, and they are even trying to boycott businesses based in Israel.” After she started saying these things, I began to grow frustrated. My mother is considered an evangelical, and she listens to opulent, fat, politically connected, and bigoted preachers, who constantly tell these things to their followers. As ever-present and overbearing as the churches are here in Robersonville, I knew for a fact that what she was saying was just not true. When she declared that there was a holy war between Christians and Muslims, that Islam started this war, in order to conquer the world and “kill the infidels,” my patience with her began to falter. “Where did you hear this from?” I demanded, “Or did you come up with this on your own?” She said saw it on Fox News. I reminded her that it wasn’t just Muslims who were attacking places of worship, citing the New Zealand mosque attacks, which happened only a month ago, and the attack on the synagogue in Pittsburg — both were perpetrated by white supremacists.

“How about that Muslim woman in Congress?” mom asked me. I replied that I had heard some of the things Fox News was saying about Democratic congresswoman Ilhan Omar, that she was un-American because she wore a hijab. I told my mother that if you have American citizenship, that makes you an American, regardless of your religion; that criticizing Zionism does not make you anti-Semitic; and that Ms. Omar merely misspoke when she referred to the 9/11 terrorist attacks as “Some people did something.” My mom was shocked. “Are you defending her?” I replied that not only did we need pluralism in society, we need diversity in our government. “Our culture is about to be destroyed,” she said emphatically. I replied that our culture was going to change no matter what anyone tried to do — no matter how many walls we built — because the elderly people were going to die out, and the kids were going to take over.

I was already a bit roiled when we steered the conversation to other things. Mom said that my sister and her family had left for a week, and she was at home alone. She was having problems with her lawn mower, and had to get her neighbors to help her. Now that she had finished cutting the grass, would I like to come over, spend the night, and come back tomorrow? I agreed to it. I was worried about mom staying in that big house all by herself with no one to assist her. She had lived alone for a year after my stepfather died, and feeling depressed and lonely, she didn’t do very well until my sister left her husband and moved in with her, along with my sister’s boyfriend and her son.

After we hung up the phone, I began packing my clothes in my suitcase, along with my chargers for my iPhone and my ear-buds, and a set of books containing the ancient Greek tragedies. When  mom picked me up and we arrived at her house, my nephew’s cat ran away from me and started hiding under the furniture in the den. After awhile, my mom cooked a steak with baked potato for supper. We spend most of our time together reading our books.

The next morning, I had to leave the kitchen because mom was drinking coffee in front of me, so I procured one of her lounge chairs out of the shed, and sat in the back yard, lounging in the sun, with book in hand. It was quiet and peaceful, with the birds singing and the breeze blowing, as I read poetic tales of murder and revenge, of peace and war, of birth and death. When I found a good stopping place, coming back inside the house to get out of the sun, I found my mom sitting at the kitchen table in front of her paperback with tears in her eyes. “This is such a sad story, ” she said, laughing at her own folly. I didn’t realize she got so emotionally involved in her stories. In a similar manner, I get emotionally involved when I watch the news and hear politicians make speeches.

When we were packing up to return to Robersonville, my mom wanted to go to a fancy seafood restaurant in Greenville, then return her books at the public library. I told her that I would pay for my own meal this time, and I wanted to treat myself to a lobster, (I had never eaten one before), and when we arrived at the restaurant, I saw an aquarium in the lobby, with these creatures inside, very much alive, their pincers restrained with rubber bands. I was destined to eat one of these — I heard that they squealed in agony when the cook dropped them into the boiling water — and I tried not to dwell on the idea that these creatures were feeling pain.

As my mom and I were having some good conversation, sitting at our booth, listening to soothing jazz, talking about family and friends, the waitress brought out our meal, and I saw the lobster that I ordered to be killed, along with a pair of shell crackers and a tiny fork to dig out the meat. I found out that eating lobster is hard work; it was tough getting inside the hard shell. On one occasion, I tried to tear open one of the lobster’s joints, and a large piece abruptly split off and sailed half way across the lobby. I was thankful there were not many people in the restaurant and nobody saw this, as Mom and I began laughing uproariously at this sudden crustacean turmoil. After much digging and excavating, I learned that lobster wasn’t really exceptional or outstanding; I was left with a plate stacked full of empty shells and I was still hungry.

When we left the restaurant, going straight to the Sheppard Memorial Library, my mom having a large satchel of library books, I carried these inside for her. I placed them upon the check-out desk, so mom could get credit for returning them, then I went outside on the front porch to call Laura, to respond to a voicemail she sent me. When Laura answered the phone, she said, “I thought we had plans for today! What’s taking you so long? I thought you’d be home by now.” I made no direct response to these demands. We spoke briefly about what we had been doing that day, then I ended the conversation. I went back inside and found my mom going through the fiction aisles, loading up her satchel once again. She could hardly carry it when she filled it up, so I hauled it for her once again to the check-out, and one of the librarians said they were due in three weeks. I was surprised at how many books my mom reads at a time. “Sometimes,” she said, “I read a whole book in one day.”

I lugged the satchel of books back to the car, placing them in the floor in front of the back seat on the driver side. “I should take you to the library with me every time I go,” mom declared, “Those books sure are heavy.”

Next, we proceeded to travel to Robersonville Manor. When we arrived there, we saw a construction crew that had just finished putting new roofs on all the apartment buildings, cleaning up and getting ready to leave. They had worked so rapidly, finishing the job in less than twenty-four hours. The neighborhood looked much better. When I retrieved my suitcase, along with the bag of canned peaches and preserves my mom gave me, I sat them down and gave her a big hug. I asked her to call me when she returned home, so I would know she got there safely. My phone rang an hour later.

“I made it home,” mom said, “I enjoyed our time together. I love you.”

 

 

 

 

Giving is the Best Medicine

In my previous epistles, you have probably noticed a high-flown ambition coupled with some negative emotional expressionism. You may have noticed for yourself my highbrow pretensions. In order to change this somewhat and to progress, I have stopped drinking espresso again, and I got sick for a couple of days. I had mentioned to you in my previous letter that I had been ailing, and this was the reason why. Now sometimes my mind will play tricks on me, an inner dialog whispering that I cannot do any creative work unless I drink my usual eight cups every morning, and I know for a fact that this is one big addictive lie. It had started out with only two cups a day. Immediately after I poured them into my stomach, I felt so high — it was as if I was in heaven! — but soon I had to drink more and more to achieve the same effect. The inflammation in my stomach was getting worse, and I began using abdominal pain to curb my appetite. Since I ceased this pathological behavior, I’ve been feeling much better and more at peace with the world. The nightmares have gone away, and I’m capturing more enjoyment now as I take trips with my bike upon the rural pathways, the days getting warmer now that spring is finally here. The wind in my face feels refreshing as I notice the trees and grass quickly turning from brown to green, with multitudes of yellow flowers blooming in vacant lots and on the roadside. I ride past homesteads and smell the aroma of newly cut grass. Off in the distance, I can see livestock grazing and I can hear the birds singing their numerous themes and variations.

In spite of all these resplendent sensations — of trees, grass, flowers, and birds — I have a tiny bit of hearing loss and I’m legally blind in my left eye. My medication causes me additional vision problems, and, over the course of several years, I began to notice this mole on my face, but I couldn’t tell much about it because I couldn’t clearly see it. Laura kept viewing it, telling me she thought the mole was growing. I went to the doctor and showed it to her; she gave me a referral to a dermatologist. When Laura took me in to see the specialist, the nurse who led me into the examination room asked me if I ever had skin cancer before. I told her no. The dermatologist came in and I showed him the mole on my cheek. He looked at it with a magnifier and immediately said it was benign. He took what looked like a small fire extinguisher, spraying a cold mist upon my cheek to freeze the mole so it would peel off. The mole stung me a little as it was freezing. While he was there in the examining room, I had him check all the moles on my chest and back. He went over them with his magnifier, saying they were all fine. The dermatologist concluded by saying that I did the right thing by coming in, because it was a mole which had irregular boarders and was getting bigger, adding that since I had trouble with my vision, I was welcome to come in every year or two just to get checked out for safety purposes.

The doctor shook hands with Laura and I as he was leaving; we checked out at the rear desk, then we left the building to go to Wal-Mart. After Laura parked her car in its massive parking lot, we were about to enter the store when we were approached at the front door by two young women soliciting donations for people with autism. I have to admit to you that I am tight-fisted when it comes to money — it seems like everyone wants some of it — as if holding onto it is tantamount to personal survival. I said, “No, thank you,” but Laura reached into her wallet and freely gave. The women gave her a pen and a magnet to go on her refrigerator. Laura made conversation with one of them, learning that her child is stricken with the disease.

It might be a flaw in my character that I feel uncomfortable in giving away money to charitable causes, but I feel differently when it comes to giving away food. Laura and I had lunch at the Robersonville Community Center the next day, and Laura got an extra plate made for my neighbor, Della. We arrived at Robersonville Manor after lunch, and I went into my apartment, taking out a loaf of bread and a jar of peanut butter, putting these into a bag, and took it over to Della’s. Laura and I chatted with her as Della was seated upon her couch with her tray placed upon the seat of the walker in front of her. Della looked a lot better today than the last time I saw her. She wasn’t spending all day cooped up in her apartment wearing pajamas anymore. She had been walking back and forth to the mailbox on the other side of the apartment complex, along the semi-circular sidewalk, using her walker and having her home health worker assist her. Della expressed her appreciation to us, and I could tell she was hungry.

I could smell a musty odor in her apartment, the residue of years of smoking, but Della had to stay with some family members after having breast cancer surgery, and they had forced her to quit and she never started back. In the course of our conversation, Della showed us her swelled up arm; she needed a brace on it, but Medicaid wouldn’t pay for this. Della spoke of a man she saw on television who won $750,000 playing the lottery. Oh, the things she would do if she won that! She could leave Robersonville Manor and not have to die there. She would buy herself a house. She would buy brand new cars for her grandchildren. But I reminded Della that the lottery is a loser’s game — the odds of winning is so small that there is no cause for any real hope, and in her heart, she knew this, too.  When Della had finished eating the chicken and ham, along with the string beans and collards, we decided to take our leave, and Laura leaned into her to give her a hug while Della reached out, giving Laura a big kiss on the cheek with her greasy lips.

The World and the Town

I hope this letter finds you doing well; I felt sick for a couple of days, but I soon got over it.  Other than this, the past week has been largely uneventful. Just the same mundane life. Laura had a problem with her car the other day, and we took it to the mechanic’s shop in Williamston. As it was being repaired, we walked across the street to a restaurant to get something to eat. We chose the booth in the corner of the dining area, with me facing the wall and Laura sitting on the opposite side. Much to my surprise, there was a television screen mounted on this wall, a few feet above Laura’s head. It was tuned to Fox News (the volume was turned off, but you could read the captions), and I immediately viewed the images of President Trump and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu — known worldwide for their avariciousness and cruelty — standing at two separate podiums, wearing matching red power ties, dressed exactly alike.

The Secretary of State had said in a speech that America is a force for good in the Middle East. America is supporting the world’s only apartheid state, giving it the so-called “qualitative military edge,” making it the regional bully, while we continue to support the war in Yemen, allowing the Saudi coalition to create mass starvation, as they are bombing school buses filled with children, bombing weddings and hospitals, and bombing schools, using the weapons they are buying from the United States. We are also supporting the economic strangulation of Iran, who threw off the yoke of American oppression after a revolution forty years ago. We also attacked and destroyed neighboring Iraq under false pretenses, and this massive instability spread to Syria, bringing about a brutal civil war, a terrorist caliphate, and massive waves of desperate refugees flooding into Europe.

“Don’t look at that, look at me,” Laura said, breaking my train of thought as I was looking upward at the television screen.

“I don’t want to see them, Laura,” I replied, “I want them out of my face!”

It seems like the news is everywhere, on television screens in public places, on newspaper stands, on our iPhones and tablets, and I’m always drawn toward them in a perverse sort of way. I noticed that I know so much about the world, but so little about the town I live in. When I went to the town hall in Robersonville to pay my utility bill, I asked one of the women working there when the town board meetings were being held. She said that it was on the second Tuesday of the month, in the upstairs meeting room at 7 p.m. This would be right after I came home from the housing projects, to stand in the bread line to get my weekly allotment of free food.

The following Tuesday, Laura and I left for the food bank — she to volunteer and get food, I to stand in line to get food. It was going to feel strange, after mingling with Robersonville’s poor, to take my seat at the town hall among property owners and elected officials. My stay over at the housing projects was brief and mostly uneventful, but you have to deal with personalities there, and I was the only white person in line; however, no one has ever mistreated me. When my turn came up, I was given limited choices of what food to put in my backpack, but the food bank was really generous this time, and my sack was heavy. Laura helped me get it secured upon my back, and Tina laughed when she saw me leave as if I was on a mountain climbing expedition. As I rode my bike home past the car wash, I heard someone shouting to another, “He can’t lift, he can’t carry. That’s all he is!” I didn’t turn my head to the side to look at who was saying this. I didn’t believe they were talking about me, but it made me uncomfortable. I know I looked strange riding home with this big load on my back, but motorists will probably never know why I was doing this, and I will never conform in order to please them.

After arriving home and putting my food away, I left my apartment to walk downtown. As I was getting closer to the town hall, I noticed several cars and pickup trucks parked in front of it. I felt a little uneasy as I entered the building and walked up a flight of steps into the meeting room. Why would someone who lives in a lowly place such as Robersonville Manor, where the tenants don’t have the right to vote in municipal elections, want to attend a board meeting? I was relieved when I entered the room, and saw there were several rows of chairs which allowed me anonymity as I sat in the back. The board members were sitting behind a table the shape of a semicircle, with a podium facing the center. The meeting had just started and the mayor, who owns and operates the local pharmacy, announced the commencement of new business.

A woman representing an insurance company took the podium. It was a type of insurance which covers residents who have an unknown water leak on their property — leaving them with a sudden, astronomical water bill — that would not be covered by homeowner’s policies, and would cause the municipality hardship if the resident couldn’t pay the debt. The town of Robersonville could pay the premiums by increasing everyone’s water bill by approximately a dollar and a half, and if they did so, the town would be able to forgive the liability after the homeowner got the leak fixed, and wouldn’t end up having to turn his utilities off. One of the board members asked her about the other communities who implemented this scheme. After she told them, and passed out the advertisements for her company, the mayor said they would take it all into consideration. She smiled at me as she walked past and left the room.

The next order of business was concerning a proclamation by the Boy’s and Girl’s Club of Robersonville. The mayor read it out, and it listed the good works it was performing for the youth of the town. I found this interesting, because I didn’t know that such an organization existed here.

The next person who took the podium was a gentleman in charge of Robersonville’s zoning laws. There is a church on the corner of Outerbridge and Academy Streets, the old Robersonville Primitive Baptist Church, constructed in 1910, that was converted into a museum which the town finally closed, locking its doors permanently. The church was a more “worldly” design of American Colonial Revival architecture, with only one entrance in front, not two separate ones for each gender, to keep the men and women separated. The grandson of one of the parishioners had acquired ownership of the building, restoring it as an expression of Southern culture. Now it’s in poor repair and has a “For Sale” sign in front of it. A group of people have expressed an interest in buying the property and turning it into a church again. The leader of the group stood up and introduced himself. The official mentioned rezoning the neighborhood to allow this new place of worship to be established. The mayor agreed to this. The official also talked about the dozen vacant houses here in town, in severe disrepair with their roofs caving in, their owners no longer taking responsibility for them. He suggested going ahead and getting these dwellings condemned so they could be torn down. The board agreed to this, also.

There was no more business here, and the meeting was adjourned.