In 1993 I was Vincent Van Gogh. In 1995, I was Kurt Cobain. In 1997, I was Keith Haring. I studied these people. Everything I could find on them, by them, I owned. I looked at their work for clues, wisdom, an answer. Through their work I felt their pain, their dreams, their joys, and their despair. I studied them not just because I wanted to be "like" them, or even "be" them. I studied them because I was them.
Through their art I experienced their life, through my eyes. I felt the joy of discovery, the rush of productivity and creativity, the search for meaning, the anguish of never finding. I understood the addictions, the self-destructiveness, the whole messy business. And I loved them all the more because I understood it. I felt it. I was it.
There was just one problem with me being them. They all destroyed themselves. Would I have to do the same?
When I discovered that I was Van Gogh in 1993 and started painting, I found a door in myself that had been closed since childhood. When I discovered that I was Kurt Cobain, the silent anger and rage of a shitty childhood started kicking it down. When I became Keith Haring, I found my voice, manic and unstoppable as it poured out my story.
Now wait a minute you might say, where was "I" during
all of this? I mean, it was "MY" story that was being told, not theirs. Well, I suppose "I" was there too. Leaning on the great ones, feeling their feelings, until I could learn to feel my own. That's kind of what artists contribute to humanity, eh? They feel and record their feelings, leaving the non-artists and the emerging artists a trail of emotional breadcrumbs to follow on their way to self-awareness, to enlightenment. I don't think there is a more noble purpose (it's too bad it generally doesn't pay well).
Ok, but if these guys are so great, why did they all self-destruct in their prime? A valid question, and one of particular importance to me, since I "was" them. I was very afraid to ask that question of myself because it would have interfered with my ability to continue doing the answer. Although I had gained a lot of self/emotional awareness, and I found I could express my feelings in a powerful way, it was still very unpleasant to FEEL them. If I could dull them, then I didn't have to deal with them. For me, marijuana did the job better than anything else. Though I have engaged in all manner of compulsive activity, from work, to computer games, to pornography, the consistent fall back when the other things weren't working was pot. The first time I got high in the 7th grade, I forgot myself. I'd been chasing that feeling ever since.
After years of hiding my use, I decided in 2001 that I was going to be out in the open with it. There's a long story here, and out of respect to my wife and my family, who put up with a lot of shit from me, I won't go into all of it. Suffice it to say I had myself convinced that smoking pot from morning till night was making me a better person. I felt it was key to my artistic creativity, my spirituality, and my peace of mind. I believed these things, almost wholeheartedly.
It was the peace of mind thing that eventually tripped me up. Like a lot of artists, I have a tendency to swing pretty widely through my mood cycles, with both intense lows and highs. In times of emotional stress, be it a high or a low, the pot would always intensify it, a lot. Prozac took away the problems with the lows, but the highs would be crazy. Unable to sleep much, always in a dream state, I would push my sanity to the edge.
Although at the time I felt like these frenzied states of mind were gold mines of creative ore, mostly they just kept me in a state of constant crisis, with my work, my family and my self. The art I was doing toward the end, while indeed visionary in its way, was pretty much only appreciable by me, and by a hand full of the addicted or near insane.
The events of 9/11 were really sort of the catalyst for me to clean up my act. It triggered a kind of posttraumatic state for me where, in my druggy-haze, I knew I had
the plan that would save the world. Not only that, but also that I had an obligation to share it with others. I was way over-the-top on this and I knew that I was in a fantasyland, yet, I still believed it. It created an obvious contradiction for me. I knew then that I had to get straight or I would go insane, or worse, lose my family. And still, this was a difficult decision for me, as it is for all addicts. I had a whole list of reasons why not to get sober, top of the list being that I didn't see how I was going to function as an artist.
I have been clean and sober for about a year and a half as of this writing (4/03). This last year has been like starting over in a lot of ways, and starting to feel things without medicating has been every bit as unpleasant as I ever might have thought it would be. The bill was due, so to speak, for years worth of things I had neglected and which needed to be made right. I have to say though, that my life IS better in every way and that, although I am far from the model of mental health and happiness, I feel like I'm moving in a good direction.
It is not my intention to sound preachy about substances. Everyone needs to find their own path, and I know that there are more people out there than not who can use drugs and alcohol in a responsible manner. It just stopped working for me. I don't have regrets about this. I learned things from it that I needed to learn, and likely wouldn't have learned any other way. I am grateful that I'm still alive and sane enough to say that, because, I do believe that one way or another, sooner or later, you either stop, go insane or die from it.
I am also happy to report that my creativity was NOT in fact dependent on pot, which is very satisfying to me. I have done some really good work in the last year, on themes and ideas that never would have occurred to me wasted, and, in having to deal with my emotions sober, opened up all kinds of artistic vistas hereto unexplored by me.
Speaking of trying to save the world, in the fall of 2002, I was John Lennon. On a whim I had picked up his "Plastic Ono Band" album, and felt his feelings through my eyes. This was painful music and I was devastated. I was he. But I started listening to his later work, "Double Fantasy" and "Milk and Honey", and much to my great surprise, I had finally found somebody "to be" who was happy. Here was someone who was learning to live with his wounds and still find what there was to enjoy in life, someone who was no longer trying to save the world and someone who was no longer killing himself in the process. I felt very comforted in seeing "me" find a way to be happy. It's very sad that he didn't get a chance to enjoy it for very long. I guess it's just the way life is.
In the end, an artist can only take you so far along in the journey and the rest you have to learn for yourself. In spite of my grandiose plans to save the world (it was a good plan actually), as an artist, my highest function in society is probably to be a sower of breadcrumbs. Maybe someday I'll help someone find their way toward saving themselves, someone who looks at my art and says "he is me". That would make me feel like I've accomplished something as an artist. After all, even John Lennon didn't save the world.
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