I’m fifty-one years old. On November 6, 1987, I met a woman who I recognized and remembered even though we were perfect strangers. I was a drunk and a creature of chronic rage, but when I shook hands with “Carmen”—the Cardinal Ghost—I became whole. All the rage fell away instantly, and I learned what it was like to love and be loved without inhibition.
One afternoon in August of 1992, I drove Carmen to our favorite spot in San Francisco and told her a story about myself. It destroyed our relationship because she hadn’t signed up for what I shared with her. Since I didn’t want to leave, she was forced to drive me away. She did so by becoming the second-cruelest person I’ve ever known. I finally gave up in July of 1993 and left her. Because of my history, romantic involvement is problematic. The three good years with Carmen were the only time I was able to experience normality.
From 1992 I was a freelance music journalist. My main outlet was a magazine called Bass Player. After I produced the publication’s two most popular interviews—with Gene Simmons of Kiss and Scott Thunes of the Frank Zappa band—I was promoted to Contributing Editor. My future seemed assured.
Then in 1998 a new editor was hired. He told me that my interviewing style didn’t fit in with his vision. True to his word, he never allowed me another feature-length article. Being crippled with the chronic rage that returned after I lost Carmen, I dug in my heels and refused to go elsewhere. I would write myself back into the magazine’s good graces! My plan failed. Though the editor was eventually canned, his replacement didn’t give me a single assignment. In 2002 I officially quit music journalism, my ten years in the business having amounted to nothing.
During my time as a music journalist, I was also a scale-model builder. My work was featured in the most prestigious publications for World War One aviation and scale modeling. In the summer of 1999, I lost the ability to focus on objects closer than eighteen inches. It was impossible to paint models anymore, even with magnifying rings or glasses. Another of my great loves was gone forever.
By 2002 I could no longer play the bass guitar due to osteoarthritis in both hands. I refused to admit that this was true. Every few months I’d try to play again, but the pain made it impossible. It wasn’t until 2012 that I finally accepted this loss.
In late 2011 I began having horrendous dizzy spells. It was like being inside a centrifuge. The dizziness was so bad it caused projectile vomiting. I looked up the symptoms before going to the doctor and discovered a horrible, incurable autoimmune disorder called Meniere’s disease. Praying, praying, and praying some more, I went to my doctor on October 7.
“It’s Meniere’s disease,” he said.
The strangest thing happened: All my rage fell away instantly, exactly as it had when I met Carmen. A change had come over me. I was no longer angry at what I’d lost. Instead, I was now grateful for everything I’d once had.
In 2012 a discussion forum persuaded me to write a book that became Ghosts and Ballyhoo: Memoirs of a Failed L.A. Music Journalist. It’s the best writing I’ve ever done. I contacted the Cardinal Ghost for permission to write about her, and during our collaboration we mended fences. My unending sorrow at losing her finally dissipated. The book was slated for release in March of 2013.
On January 16, 2013, both of my parents were diagnosed with Stage IV cancer. Dad lost his mind almost immediately and stopped eating. My brother Tim and I took care of him as he raved, screamed, and literally tried to outrun death. Though City of Hope said his cancer was treatable, his insanity made that impossible. In the hospice I took part in a grueling Last Rites, forgiving him in an attempt to help him surmount his fear. He died peacefully seven hours later, on February 23, 2013.
In March I hired a Web designer to build me a giant Extravagumbo (to quote Stephen Jay, bassist for “Weird Al” Yankovic) site. She took my $6000 deposit and used it to eat at expensive restaurants and give parties. I discovered this by Googling her name and finding photos she’d posted of her meals. She did virtually no work on my site and missed all the deadlines. After she refused to refund my money, I proved her fraudulence to VISA.
“We’re going to make an example of her,” a very hard-boiled investigator told me. A month later, the Web designer was out of business.
Mom had her cancer surgery April 4, 2013. Initially she did amazingly well, but then she stopped eating. She told me I had to concentrate on my career; when I visited her, it made her upset, so Tim and I made the agonizing decision to keep me away as much as possible. I hired two other Web designers, one to make me a placeholder site so I could meet the deadline for the release of Ghosts and Ballyhoo—now pushed back to July of 2013—and one to design my Extravagumbo site. I also hired a book publicist.
On June 24, 2013, I realized that my mother would die. She’d become anorexic due to suppressed rage at what was happening to her. The next day, June 25, I fired my publicist. Though he has a great reputation, he makes the author write his or her own press release, which he rejects over and over. He himself will write the release if you ask, but the price of his services quintuples. The day I fired him, I queried two other publicists by e-mail. One responded in less than an hour.
After a phone conference with the kindest, most reassuring man I’d ever heard, I signed with his agency on July 5, 2013. My goal was now to turn Ghosts and Ballyhoo into a trilogy. I wrote every day, blogged about my mother, visited her in the nursing home when Tim said it was a good time, and spoke to the publicists constantly. They were very supportive, telling me that I was an inspiration to the whole office.
Mom died October 13, 2013. She’d beaten the cancer but had developed cachexia. Her heart simply gave out. She died crying, in terror. On October 28, I had a breakdown and allowed myself to feel everything that had happened in 2013. I suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder with secondary psychotic features (PTSD-SP). When under extreme stress, I dissociate. I also lose track of time, and my short-term memory goes to hell.
In addition, Meniere’s disease causes the self-explanatory condition called “brain fog.” The medication I take to fight my mental and physical illnesses contributes to my cognitive dysfunction. I’d explained all of this to my publicists because the Meniere’s has left me housebound. Personal appearances, TV, or book signings are out of the question.
On January 7, 2014, Scott Thunes—the Collateral Ghost of my memoir—alerted me that my publicists were frauds. When I belatedly investigated, I discovered that he was right. In seven months they’d taken me for $40,000 and accomplished virtually nothing. They’d also double billed me and charged for services they didn’t carry out. I didn’t catch any of it because of my mother’s prolonged suicide and because I trusted these people.
The fake publicists had said they read my blog every night. I was able to match the dates of my blog posts to those of the invoices and determine that these con artists struck at my lowest emotional and mental ebb. Double bills came the day Mom died and the day of her funeral, for example. While they were scamming me, they called regularly to buck me up. The day I had my breakdown, they sent a condolence card.
Along with defrauding me of $40,000, they killed Ghosts and Ballyhoo. It’s now too old to be marketed. The entire creation process of my best work was a waste of time. I may as well have not written it.
In February of 2014, my cardiologist told me that I’d reached a crisis point. If I didn’t improve within a month, he’d have to recommend that I be institutionalized for PTSD. I had a choice: Let these latest setbacks ruin my life, or try to move beyond them.
After a month I’d lost fourteen pounds, and my blood pressure was back to normal. I finished Volumes Two and Three of the Ghosts Trilogy—the novel Chasing the Last Whale and Hallucinabulia: the Dream Diary of an Unintended Solitarian. All three books share the theme of overcoming trauma by replacing rage over loss with gratitude for what once was.
In my own life, gratitude again came to my rescue. My parents had ensured that their children would not have to worry about the future. Mom and Dad’s generosity gave me the freedom to write whatever I want. I contacted the book section of every major newspaper in the country, as well as every literary blog, offering to tell my story of how fake publicists exploited my mental illness and the suicides of my parents to fleece me of $40,000.
Not one newspaper or blog responded. Neither did any radio shows. Though PayPal refunded me $9000 after determining that I’d been utterly defrauded, and though I’ve written extensively about these con artists—identifying them by name for months without any repercussions whatsoever—no media outlet cares. Neither do the police in the city where the fake publicists are based. I made a report, but nobody got back to me.
This allowed me to shake off the final shackles of expectation. My life is rewarding beyond my wildest dreams, as I exist in a state of absolute liberty. I no longer write for money or recognition. Every day I wake up eager to discover what more I can learn to improve myself. Every night I go to bed a slightly better person. It took absolute catastrophe on every level for me to arrive at this point, so I can’t serve as an example for how to achieve happiness.
But gratitude will save anybody. I’m now I’m grateful for even the tiniest dollop of good and beauty I experience. This has diversified my portfolio. Instead of relying on two or three large investments, I have millions of little ones. A photo, a song, a smile, a promise kept—each sustains me. I have recovered, and I continue my ascent.
Look and see, look and see,—
Men have wings at last.
—Josephine Preston Peabody