My Rage and My Gun

6-panel ink mural about the Black Plague, 1994.

The first time I took LSD, my world turned from black and white to color. It was May of 1994 and I was growing up in a Midwest town that was surrounded by corn fields and pockmarked with factories. I had recently dropped out of high school, fighting with the administration when I loaded my schedule with art classes instead of gen ed — “I’m here for an education, not a diploma” — then bullied out by some other students for having too many earrings, and in the wrong ear.

I immediately started at a community college where my father taught and during that first semester of being an 17 year-old freshmen, I met a young woman whose beauty was far too exotic for Iowa. She introduced me to many firsts, including LSD, which soon replaced her as my top priority. She gave me half of a hit at a rave in Minneapolis and within an hour my internal landscape became a kaleidoscope of fascination, lightness, and creativity.

Several weeks and trips later, I got into a fight with my parents about going to another all-night rave, this time in Milwaukee. I threw a red flag by saying “this town is so boring I want to kill myself” and ended up in weekly therapy sessions for the rest of the summer.

I presented a sociable version of myself to the therapist. I gave nothing, so she had nothing to work with. At the end of the summer I turned 18, giving my parents less leverage. The counselor concluded I was stable and terminated the therapy.

In addition to LSD, I also took cocaine, ecstasy, mushrooms, pot, and opium as it was available. Initially, each drug opened a new door into my psyche and revealed my next art project. After each trip I would write, draw, and paint, the largest canvas being 12 by 6 feet. It felt like an infinite stream of treasures to lift from the water, put to paper, and call my own.

However by autumn, the time between trips grew darker, the light of muse dimmer. I would hunch over, close my eyes, and mine for ideas that were effortless just weeks before. The words and images from the other side became more disturbing: children playing alone on a dark playground, flesh being fused with metal and machines, and poems about profound isolation.

Bio-mechanical drawings, 1994.

The next semester I took a creative writing course, writing about heavy drug use, kidnappings, and aliens. Even through their Midwestern manners, I could sense the other students and teacher were confused or even concerned by my themes. But I was getting A’s, not making specific threats, and staying off the radar.

During a particularly dark valley, I wrote my first story about killing people with a gun. The perspective was obsessively internal, seconds of time taking a full page. I was one of the characters in Alice in Wonderland, filled with repressed rage, smiling at my storymates while reading malice into their expressions. It ended with a massacre and suicide. I knew not to submit the story in class, but filed it at home with my darkest writings, poems about alienation and righteous, hateful, purity. My art and writing slid into expressions of rage — dark, homicidal, and suicidal — and one day these seemed to manifest into an actual weapon.

I hadn’t thought about it in a few years, but when I was 13 I was bequeathed a shotgun after my grandfather died. Each male grandson was given one. I rediscovered it in the back of my bedroom closet, pulling it out and feeling the black metal barrel. It was unlike any other object in the house, a device with the power to launch high-speed projectiles and kill. Now that it was in my hands and consciousness, my darkness evolved without my permission into a reoccurring vision of suicide.

I’d sit on the floor of my bedroom, close my eyes, and see myself firing the shotgun under my chin, up into my head. There was a variation where the blast didn’t kill me, my parents would rush into the room, and I would jump from my second-story window and die on the rocks below. The scene would replay until I opened my eyes. I didn’t want to die. I just kept seeing it happen.

I began to do “dry runs” with the unloaded gun. I’d position it under my chin, close my eyes, and pull the trigger. Hearing the click was like cutting — it was the only time I could feel something and cry.

Almost voyeuristically, I began to drive by the hunting goods store downtown. It was the only place I knew that sold ammunition. I’d sometimes park in the lot, imagining going in. I wondered if they would sell shells to me. I had oversized clothes and dark circles under my eyes — any reasonable person could see I wasn’t a hunter. I barely could make a phone call, so the idea of walking into a store and culture I’ve never been in before was daunting.

Sitting in the car, I wondered if I got the shells, where would I keep them? Would I load them in the gun? Would I put the barrel under my chin, loaded? I winced at this last image, terrified of getting acclimated to it. Something inside me flinched and I knew I had to get help.

I made an appointment with a psychiatrist so I could get an anti-depressant, carefully presenting myself as depressed but not a danger to myself or others. I was confessional when he asked about street drugs. He told me to stop taking them and wrote me a prescription for Prozac.

I felt instant relief, the placebo of knowing that things were going to get better. I took the Prozac each day, but also kept using street drugs. In just a few months, I had already lost my agency with them.

As the Prozac slowly took effect and mixed with the street drugs, I felt something I later learned about in a psychology class — derealization. My life felt like a nihilistic dream, that my actions wouldn’t have any real consequence. I could get groceries or shoot someone, there wasn’t much of a difference. But either from the Prozac or the placebo effect, I stopped seeing my death when I closed my eyes.

At my first followup appointment the doctor asked me if I had stopped the street drugs. Again, strangely, I told him the truth and said no — I had done cocaine and opium the nights before. He said he could not safely prescribe to me, gave me a referral to a drug rehabilitation service, and ended our appointment. Standing in the hallway outside his office, I felt angry and rejected. I looked at the referral card and crumpled it up. I refused to give up the only thing that gave me some moments of relief. But I only had a few Prozac left and the sunlight of hope bent over the horizon, abandoning me after a few, short weeks.

The dark thoughts returned and I briefly considered asking my drug friends for a gun. Our scene was unexpectedly pacifist — people weren’t even beat up over bad deals — and the only person I knew with a gun was cross-eyed. I let go of the idea.

I held on to nothing for a while longer, life’s way of moving forward despite my wishes, and respite finally came in the form of a new drug. A friend called, not giving any details because he was concerned his phone was tapped. When I arrived at his apartment, we went into the bathroom even through no one else was home. He opened up a folded piece of paper and showed me a moist, orange-pink powder.

“It’s meth.”

I bought a quarter gram and tried it at home a few days later. I organized my CD collection and cleaned my room. My brother came home with a flat tire and I changed it for him. My shyness disappeared, along with the depression. I supplemented weekend binges with daily doses of over-the-counter ephedrine pills I bought at the truck stop by the airport. I could focus in school, no matter how boring the subject. Speed had many consequences, but fixating on the gun was not one of them.

Over the next few years, I rotated drugs in a long campaign of self-medication. I used amphetamines to get out of my LSD depression, downers to come off the speed, cocaine to get off the downers, until I exhausted every receptor in my brain. In 1998, I finally got help getting off the drugs.

My attention never returned to the shotgun. It stayed in the back of my closet until December of 2012, when we decided as a family to get rid of all our weapons after the Newtown massacre.

As an adult, I’ve looked back at those darkest hours in 1994. With just a rudimentary savvy for avoiding detection, I had a weapon despite being dangerously delusional. Even though life is brutally resilient, it’s fragile at the wrong angle. A slight shift in circumstances — a friend with a gun, or if I inherited shells with the shotgun — and those moments would have struck differently and shattered the diamond.

When each new massacre occurs, my pain is two-fold. First and foremost for the victims — the students, church-goers, music fans, citizens of any kind that find themselves in a sudden war zone — and secondly, the darkest form of empathy, knowing I could have been one of these malevolent young men, compounded together with the lethal blend of isolation, rage, and a loaded weapon.