Darkness at the Edge of Town

March 18th, 2014 was a day that would change my life, though not in the way I intended. It was the day that my first novel, Slip Sliding Away, was published and I truly believed that it was the beginning of a great adventure. I had written a topical book for a generation I felt was underrepresented in literature, and I was convinced that they would identify with my protagonist’s struggles, frustrations and anxieties with today’s world. I had multiple talks written for the book tour I was sure would follow. I was prepared with discussion points for interviews and talk shows, rebuttals for any negative reviews and places on my wall for the good ones. Most of all, I was ready for the validation and vindication that would come with all of this. In the early years of my Asperger’s diagnosis, my parents were told by a case manager that I wouldn’t be able to attend public school, let alone earn a high school diploma. I wasn’t just a college graduate now, I was a published novelist as well, all by the age of 26, and no motherfucker could ever take that away from me.

I had invested in a publicist who would garner the critical reviews and media exposure I desperately needed. I also had generous family and friends who talked the book up to everybody they knew, even if the subject matter wasn’t their cup of tea. My confidence high, the weekend after the publication my brother came up from New Jersey and took me out to downtown Burlington to celebrate. I had invited all of my co-workers to come out with us, but only a few ever made it to Das Bierhaus, and they mainly talked amongst themselves. I had brought a copy of the book and was going to read excerpts from it for everybody, instead I ended up playing board games with my brother for a few hours. Eventually the few people who bothered to show up said the rest were at a birthday party at RiRa’s down the street and I ought to go say hello. Somewhat miffed but not wanting to be a buzzkill, I agreed to go. I ended up having a few more drinks, got beer spilled on me and was unceremoniously grinded on by a drunken male co-worker, much to everyone’s amusement. After that treat I instructed my brother to take me the hell home. Patrick could tell I was upset, and tried his best to cheer me up but I wasn’t having it. The following evening, while he went on his first date with my future sister-in-law, I sat alone and sulked. This proved to be a harbinger of things to come.

At first I thought sales were just slow because indie published books take time and serious word of mouth to spread, but by that summer, it was clear that Slip Sliding Away was failing. My publicist reassured me that she had contacted dozens of critics, publications and radio stations. She wanted to concentrate on the personal angle, specifically my struggle with Asperger’s and present me as some sort of underdog story. I felt like a whore, shamelessly using my personal life to sell myself, but I was so desperate I prepared multiple briefs on the subject for her distribution. This strategy didn’t prove anymore successful though, nobody had heard of, or had any desire to talk about, me or my book. Communication with my publicist dropped off, and it soon became apparent that she had gone as far as she was prepared to go. I had sold off some of my most prized possessions and sunk my entire life savings into the book, only to lose everything. Despite that, I wasn’t ready to give up yet, and took one last shot at a grassroots campaign.

Using two hundred dollars of my own money, I paid to have a book reading at Phoenix  Books in the heart of downtown Burlington. It was scheduled for Wednesday September 17, 2014. The store did a beautiful job with the set up, a dozen copies of my book lined the shop window the week of the reading, accompanied by a poster my publisher had sent and a sign out on the sidewalk letting people know about the reading. I convinced myself that this was the break I needed, dozens of curious people were going to wander in off the street and discover my book. Word of mouth would spread, particularly after my impassioned book talk and I would at least become a known Burlington writer, establishing a base for my next novel. The night of the reading was sunny and cool after days of rain. I dressed in my finest brown suit, brought my annotated copy of the book along with pages of notes for the talk, and left my King Street apartment nervous but confident that this was a real beginning.

I arrived at the bookstore and was met by the manager, who escorted me downstairs to the area they had set up for the talk. There were 40 chairs set around a podium, along with a table containing more copies of the book. I set my notes up, drank some water to keep the nervous dry mouth at bay, and waited for my audience to arrive. My parents got there first, sitting in the front row and taking pictures to capture this moment for posterity. And then we waited… and waited… and waited… I had taken the liberty of inviting co-workers and some others to attend but nobody else showed up. The appointed hour rolled around, the manager whispered at the back with another employee while I stared at all the empty chairs. The manager and employee eventually came to sit down and encouraged me to get started, perhaps some people would eventually wander in. I felt like doing anything in the world besides giving a talk to a conspicuously empty room, but my parents had taken the time to come out so I wasn’t going to let them down.

I launched into my talk and ended up going on for forty five of the longest minutes of my life. The curious and discerning public never did make it. By the end the two employees and my parents politely applauded, while I felt so humiliated I wanted to crawl into a hole and fucking die. Instead my dad talked me into getting a drink with him at the rooftop garden of Das Bierhaus. He told me how proud he was of me, and how proud of myself I should be. I felt anything but, and after my parents turned for home I wandered back to my apartment, grabbed a bottle of rum and headed for a small strip of un-populated beach along Lake Champlain where I proceeded to get wasted. Somehow my night of triumph had turned into an Irish wake, and I was at a loss to understand how it had all gone so wrong. In the coming weeks I reread Slip Sliding Away, for the first time since its publication and it became abundantly clear why the novel had failed, it wasn’t very well written. There were enough grammar mistakes to give an English teacher a stroke. My publisher had even managed to spell five “f-u-v-e” My editor and I hadn’t done a very good job and, as a result the narrative was choppy and in some sections, hardly readable. I grew to be ashamed of the finished product, a feeling which persists to this day.

For months and even years afterwards, people would ask me when the next book was coming out. I’d usually give them some shtick about process and maybe even a year of intended publication, but that was all bullshit. I have tried over the years to sit down and start another novel, but not much of note has been yielded. I have sketches, outlines and assorted notes, but nothing vaguely resembling a coherent manuscript. The truth of it is, after a while I ceased to be a functioning writer, and that next book became more of a daydream than anything else. In the end, the loss of potential income and subsequent financial independence was disappointing, though not wholly unexpected. But the failure of Slip Sliding Away meant so much more than just money.

Throughout college and into the early years of adulthood, I was a young and aspiring writer. I possessed talent and was driven by big dreams. Most importantly, I was armed with something to say, a story I felt needed to be told. Combine that with the deeply personal nature of the narrative, and I had more than ample motivation. I would need it to power through all the rejection letters from publishers, not to mention some skepticism from certain parties. Then with a single e-mail everything changed. I signed a contract to publish Slip Sliding Away in August of 2012, and almost overnight my outlook changed. I was going to be a bonafide novelist, life was actually going according to plan. To top it off I unexpectedly fell in love that summer, with the most extraordinary woman I had ever met. It was the most exhilarating time of my life. Of course I would eventually manage to screw up with the woman I loved, and that hurt terribly, but still I clung to that book as my ultimate salvation.

I spent more than five years writing Slip Sliding Away, from it’s beginnings as some unnamed dialogue for a creative writing class, to the final printed novel. Not only was the book an utter financial failure, it wasn’t even that good. As time went on I became harshly critical of my writing, dismissing subsequent attempts as trash and burying them in folders and scattered notebooks. Eventually I lost the belief that I could ever write another book, and if I wasn’t a writer, then what the hell was I? A scheduling coordinator? Christ I took that on as a temp job and it’s been more than six years now, so I guess professionally that’s who I am,  but scheduling is not an identity.

This existential quagmire has dogged me for sometime, but the past year in particular has been difficult. Last fall yet another relationship fell apart, and while ultimately I believe it was for the best, it was also excruciating. In the months afterwards I began to abuse alcohol, to extents that shocked even me. It was only after Christmas, when I awoke one night with my chest pounding so hard I thought I was having a heart attack, that I cut back on the booze. That scare also galvanized me to put together a charity wiffleball tournament in memory of my mother. I spent the first half of 2019 preparing for it and organizing things I never thought would be necessary for a wiffleball game (for the boys who organize Winterwiff every January, God bless you because I could not do that every year). Despite some last minute chaos behind the scenes, the game itself went surprisingly well. But sitting in Cloverleaf Tavern later that evening, in what should’ve been trimuph, the only way I could describe how I was feeling was hollow.

I didn’t understand it, by any metric the event had been a success. Through dozens of generous donations and the extraordinary effort of family and friends, the Joan Mulcahy Wiffleball Classic ended up raising more than three thousand dollars for the American Cancer Society. The game also brought together dozens of family and friends, some of whom hadn’t seen each other in years, all to pay tribute to my mother who would’ve gotten a huge kick out of the whole thing. So why did it all feel so empty? After I got back from the game, nothing much seemed to hold meaning for me anymore. I began to notice things that, in reality had been going on for a while but I had failed to pay attention to. It was taking me an hour to get out of bed in the morning because I lacked any sense of motivation or urgency. Work was becoming overwhelming, and even though the nature of the job is controlled chaos, this was different. Whether it was dealing with colleagues and clients at work, or interacting with family and friends, I felt more like an actor playing myself than anything. I was filled with anger, frustration and sadness, and I felt physically exhausted most of the time. Finally, after one particularly brutal night on-call for my job, I admitted to myself that this was no longer sustainable.

The past month has been dedicated to sorting myself out and devising a plan to restore my well being. During this process I’ve come to a few realizations. First is that I’ve been living with undiagnosed depression, likely for over twenty years now. I had never accepted that before, mainly because it felt too much like wallowing and self-pity. I told myself that everybody has problems, most of which are more serious than yours, so keep it to yourself and don’t put your shit on anybody else. Talking to anybody about my problems is seriously difficult for me, and that’s not likely to change in the near future, but I am also aware that if people don’t know you’re hurting, you take away their option to support you.  The other thing I realize now is what happened with Slip Sliding Away affected me much more than I ever admitted. I have felt like a failure for so long because I referred to the book as a failure. It was a disappointment to be sure, but I got the damn thing published so it wasn’t a failure either. Finally, when I lost hope of ever publishing again, I lost my identity as a writer. The subsequent lack of purpose and direction allowed the depression I had tried to outrun for so long to finally catch up with me. It’s been a real struggle, and there are going to be hard times ahead, but I have perspective now that I’ve never had before. I was hesitant to publish this, but felt that by chronicling this lost period I could begin to put it behind me and move on. At the very least, I’m back writing again, and that is a step in the right direction.




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