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Ten years ago, things in my life had taken one too many corkscrews and I found myself in a desperately unsustainable situation. The previous six months had been a devastating storm of personal upheaval, and I was not handing those events very well at all. My girlfriend, whom I had been living with for the previous year and a half, dumped me for my ex-girlfriend after a series of increasingly traumatizing events. I was forced to leave Horseheads on short notice, which also forced me to leave the job I had been sustaining myself with for all that time. The kids in Cortland took pity on me, and invited me to live with them while I tried to put all of the pieces back together.

I took the time that summer to develop a somewhat impressive drinking problem in a foolhardy attempt to avoid thinking about things too much. I was unemployable in a town without jobs, which drove me further down the slope into self-destructive behavior. People I was surrounded by during those days would have easily described me as miserable and prone to destructive behavior. It is not a time that I look back on proudly.

Eventually my old boss invited me back to my old job, putting together a series of places that I could stay while I struggled to get back on some kind of financial footing. This resulted in couch-surfing around the Ithaca-Elmira-Corning area while working part time and for minimum wage at the mall. Every few days I would migrate from one couch to another, carrying the things I needed with me in a backpack. While everyone was more than friendly to me, the air was thick with pity and uncertainty. I repaid these kindnesses with static and confusion which was completely unjustified. I really didn't have any framework from which to work from so I staggered through those months is a daze, working when I could and drinking and chain-smoking when I couldn't.

To further complicate matters, on my days off I would go up to Syracuse, where my now two ex-girlfriends had shacked up and were working out the dynamics of their relationship. I was certainly a disruption to their situation if not an entirely hostile presence in their home, but they welcomed me in in the spirit of goodwill and obligation. Needless to say, this was not a very good idea. It ended up piling up further issues on top of the problems I was already not dealing with, and broke my world into even smaller unmanageable pieces.

I did my best to hold the world together, but looking back now it was plainly obvious how this would have played out over the long term. It was only through the kindness of these people that was not entirely homeless. I was borderline crazy, ignorantly self-medicating and without any other alternatives. I was never going to be able to put my life back together to any reasonable degree with day-to-day struggles taking up so much space in my thoughts.

In a conversation with my brother, he suggested that I could stay with them in Holland for a while and try and get back on my feet. I had already performed this little maneuver two years before, when I was forced to drop out of college due to a lack of financing. I wasn't particularly up on the idea of trying that all over again: the first attempt had lasted a little over a month before I decided that I couldn't hack it out there. Western Michigan was too culturally different an environment for me to try and live in. But I thought about it, and came to the conclusion that it was probably the best way for me to get my feet back under me. I left my job again, gathered all of my belongings in Cortland, and waiting to head back west into the unknown future.

 


 

On November 4, 1999, I sat in the kitchen in that apartment in Cortland, surrounded by everything I had left at the time, and said goodbye to the folks that were trying to help me. I tried to convince them that this was the best thing for me, but I'm not sure I was really convinced of it myself. I told them that I had to go, that I probably wasn't going to come back. I told them that I was going to try to build a life out there, and see what could be done. I was lying, all of it. I didn't know what the hell I was doing, only that I knew that I couldn't keep things up anymore. I was so close to breaking that stepping away from it seemed like a perfectly reasonable option. That's why I went into exile, 700 miles away from everything I had at that point in my life.

Sitting here today, I would still do what I did. Even in that haze of a mess, I was still right about those things. While my time in Michigan wasn't particularly wonderful, there were things that I needed to accomplish within myself that I would have been unable to do if I had stayed behind.

 

Notes on a life in exile: A retrospective
Next: November 14, 2009

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