I wrote this piece to share at the Soapbox Social in Downtown NB last week. It was a great experience, I got to listen to some heartfelt stories told by interesting people and I really look forward to the next one.
The theme of the evening was, It’s a Sign!
With that being said, I leave you with the piece.
It’s a Sign!
I’m not really the ‘Faith’ type. In fact I don’t really believe in a God, or follow any one religion, and it seems fairly likely that human life is nothing more than some crazy mishap that farted itself into existence in the middle of some big cosmic nothing. But I’m open. I do believe that we are supposed to learn from our experience, as if the universe or life itself is passively dialoguing with us and our bio-physiological makeup; helping us to learn and evolve and whatnot? I can buy that, that seems reasonable. But, I’ve always had a hard time believing in “signs.” You know, messages directed explicitly at YOU, like the Universe is pointing a finger in your face and shouting, “You! Listen!” Those instances are dangerous as they feel like delusion, like whatever grasp you have on your mental health is slipping through your fingers and spilling you out into some crazy world of schizotypal psychosis. It’s a dangerous road to hoe.
With that being said, would you like to hear about the single craziest thing that has ever happened to me?
During my sophomore year of college, I was accused of plagiarism—or more accurately, academic dishonesty. It was due to a paper I had written on Virginia Woolf’s Between the Acts. Like most of my work at the time, I had waited until the very last minute to commit my thoughts to paper, I was—and still am–no fan of that book, or her work in general. But hey, a man’s gotta do yadda yadda, right? In an attempt to avoid doing as little analysis about the novel as possible, I used a historical framework in structuring my thesis, looking at Germany’s Slitzkrieg and Blitzkrieg and focusing on the impact that these WWII events had on Woolf’s writing. I think there was also some other corollary point in there about Freud’s influence on Woolf’s exploration of the implied sexuality of her characters, but that’s neither here nor there.
What matters is this:
•At that point in my academic career I was an abysmal student, hardly showing up to class, turning in the bare minimum requirements, and generally having to force myself into a manic state in order to accomplish anything at all. There were a few reasons for these struggles:
•I was completely obsessed with a woman I was dating—I mean head over heels, holding a boom-box outside of a window obsessed. I was suffering from undiagnosed depression, fueled by self-hatred that I was doing everything in my power to avoid—most likely out of the fear of actually having to fix my problems (a truly terrifying prospect).
•My poor academic performance had rendered me nearly catatonic with shame and self-consciousness. This combined with my depression and the fact that I had been a misfit since setting foot on the campus provided ample sustenance for the beast of self-hatred that was crouched on my back digging its claws into my shoulders and draining every last ounce of my life force; a situation which often prevented me from even passing through the threshold of my bedroom door. Unless, of course, my girlfriend was visiting from Connecticut College, oh boy! Then I was Hercules fighting the lion, I was Beowulf, I was Leonidus…and his brave 300! I was all-powerful, a God amongst men!
You see, I had sunk what little self-worth I had into that relationship, as if it were a lifeboat in which she and I could weather any storm. When she was there, I was strong! Shit, I was invincible. But when she wasn’t I was unmanageable, a complete wreck, I was the crack in the hull sinking our lifeboat. I just didn’t know it.
Anyhow, that’s just the basic snapshot of what I had going on back then. The Nick LeBlanc of that time was a sad, confused, pissed-off, anxious, helplessly in love, and hopelessly depressed young man. Things weren’t the best.
I turned in the paper after a night of furious typing, cursing myself aloud, and tearing through bags of candy and cup after cup of coffee. A week later, I was called into the professor’s office where she told me she would be bringing the paper forward to my dean and an academic committee.
“Why?” I asked, “What did I do?”
“You plagiarized,” she said, her words echoing off my skull and stabbing me deep in the roots of my soul.
Long story short, my horrendous class attendance and suspicious behavior when I was actually in class led her to believe that I was incapable of writing something with that depth of analysis. Working against me was the fact that once upon a time some other poor Virginia Woolf-hating schmuck had also decided to avoid analyzing Between the Acts by burying his thesis in an analysis of Hitler’s wartime decision-making—something she found when scouring the internet, plugging in my phrases and trying to gather evidence that I had nicked my ideas from someplace else, something she found far more likely than me actually writing the paper. Though there was no exact phrase-matching, the mere existence of a similar paper was enough to turn her suspicion into action. That was a deep cut that I was unsure I could recover from.
Looking back on it now, I can’t really blame her. She was probably frustrated with me, and thought that somehow her actions would help straighten me out. After all, I had never demonstrated my academic potential with her. How was she to know that I had taken so much Adderall when writing the paper that I could practically levitate? How was she to know that I had gotten through all of my previous classes with some version of the same pattern: don’t go to class> read most of the assignments> enter manic hyper-intellectual trance> write a great paper> go back to ignoring class and skipping homework> end semester with a low B/high C.
I hadn’t plagiarized, and wasn’t convicted of academic dishonesty—as there was no evidence–so it never went on my record. In lieu of taking the investigation any farther, everyone agreed a semester away from Holy Cross would do me well, so I did just that, took a semester off and went to work.
Shortly after this, my girlfriend who I had fallen even more in love with—or I should say, who I had buried even more of my self-worth in–broke up with me. Soon after, my friends returned to college and I was stuck in New Bedford working 9-5, alone and more depressed than ever. Over the next few years my situation would fluctuate, mostly going downhill–though I did go back to school and work my way through the last few semesters…barely.
I came out of college a complete mess, self-medicating with marijuana and alcohol, ignoring my problems, and continually distracting myself from the reality of my situation. I was manic, then depressed, then manic, then depressed, then less manic, and more depressed and then more manic and less depressed…and my feelings, psshhhh, feelings? I hated myself too much to take my feelings seriously: C’mon man, you loser! You’re sad? Grow up, maaaan! I could be a real jerk to myself. I just had no balance. Things were not good.
In 2012, everything collapsed when one evening—after a particularly bad work week (11+ hour days, working 15 days straight)–I thought I lost my mind. I had some version of a nervous breakdown that kept me out of work for 2 weeks. I was at my lowest point, and it had all started with that accusation made by Professor Reynolds during sophomore year at Holy Cross…
After a few years of research and soul searching, I’ve come to understand my incident in 2012 as something like a revelatory experience, the type of thing that psychologists like William James write about. It was the mark of a complete turnaround in my life. It was my moment of clarity. It was the first time I had considered that existence may be more than some kind of nihilistic accident. My mind opened up, and things became clearer than ever before. I learned to understand and accept myself for who I was…and I actually started having feelings again, how profound!
Writing has helped me tremendously since that revelatory moment in 2012, I now do it every day and recently have started to take it a step further. Since 2014 I have written 3 books and I am currently working on 3 more. I have published these works through a small venture I started, Domesticated Primate, which very soon will be open to submissions from the public–something I am incredibly excited about. Things have turned around for me, I now listen to myself and address my problems, and luckily, this has freed up my mind to the point where I can pursue things that I think help the community around me, like my most recent career change to teaching at a public school. I feel fortunate.
Recently, that good fortune continued when I was lucky enough to have a table at the New Bedford Book Festival put on here at Groundwork. It was a wonderful day had by all. I was just about done setting up my table when I had my first visitors, a child of about 10 or 11 years old and his two parents in their 40s. The child picked up a copy of my book, OTHER PEOPLE, and was inspecting the cover. While still adjusting my displays I got into a conversation with his parents about the book’s plot and what constitutes the difference between chapbooks and zines—a question inspired by some of the work I had on display from local authors. I finished my fiddling with the table and stepped behind it when his mother looked up at me, wondering if OTHER PEOPLE would be appropriate for his age range. I looked down at the child, briefly considered the question, fixed my gaze up toward his mother where we locked eyes and WHOOSH!
Has that ever happened to anyone else? When you notice something and your mind just, ZOOM, travels across time? Suddenly you’re somewhere else but you’ve left your body in the present, a façade, a shell of a person staring into nothingness?
I was suddenly sitting at that academic conference in 2008. Flanked by my parents, wearing a shirt with too tight of a collar and an uncomfortable tie, I scan the faces staring at me from across the table: my advisor, my class dean, the head of the Holy Cross English department and…no, it can’t be…WHOOSH—time travelling again, back to the present.
Yes. It was. The very first person to visit me at the New Bedford Book Festival, in fact the very first person to ever buy a book from me was the woman who in 2008 had such doubt in my ability that she accused me of academic dishonesty and was the impetus for me to go on an almost 5-year journey of self-discovery; the very woman who dealt me the single most necessary slap in the face that I have ever experienced—metaphorically of course; the very woman who without her (admittedly severe) intervention, I may have never gotten into writing or found any semblance of balance in my life. She was standing in front of me, not recognizing me, handing me money and congratulating me on the great work I’m doing.
When I figured out it was her, my heart dropped through the floor, Ka-Bung! Is this real life? Am I dreaming? I must be losing my mind, this has to be a delusion, there’s no way I…
She walked away with her family to go check out some other tables. I gathered my composure and approached her, reminding her of who I am and thanking her for calling my shitty behavior for what it was back at Holy Cross. She hugged me and said that educators never like having to go through that and that my outcome was exactly what people in her position always want to hear.
I haven’t told you the craziest part yet. That day at the Festival, I was set to do a reading at 3pm. The piece I had chosen was a chapter from an in-progress novel inspired by my college experience titled, “Paul is Dead, or Nodus Tollens.” In that chapter, which I had settled on the night before, I directly reference my plagiarism experience with Professor Reynolds and quote something she had said to me during the conference that always stuck with me; that my behavior was a “master-class in inaction.”
Apparently they were at the festival because her husband works at UMass Dartmouth, and they had some affiliates with work at the Festival. It was something like that, I was honestly too shocked to really process her reasoning.
Now, I know—or at least I think–it wasn’t God, or Mother Nature, or the Universe or some other cosmic being speaking to me, but c’mon, what kind of experience is that? How can I not see that as a sign? Unless it’s some kind of Truman Show-esque conspiracy that you’re all in on…hmmm?
Anyhow, in the next few weeks she will be highlighting me as a Feature Writer on the website and social media pages of the Holy Cross Creative Writing concentration as an example of an artist who has taken the non-traditional route and has started to find his place within his art and his community. I can comfortably say that things are good.
Who would’ve thunk it? Certainly not me.