I cannot ever recall, ever in my life, feeling as though my brain was operating in the same reality as the rest of the world. As a child I was often described as “imaginative,” but where other children’s standard issue imaginations would stop at fabricating imaginary friends, mine would fabricate entire worlds. I would conjure up anything from elaborate clockwork dimensions populated with mechanical men and monsters, to brilliant lands of classic fantasy to nightmarish hells so terrifying I wouldn’t sleep for days. My mind seemed more intent on creating a new reality than participating in the one I shared with the rest of the world. I was of this world, but not in it.
I took to drinking in seedy bars, places populated with smoke and puke and people who seemed to feel as out of place as I did. Friendly faces were the minority in these places. The patrons would generally be perfectly content with watching the ice melt in their whiskey as the preferable choice over introducing themselves and starting a conversation. Birthdays passed as just another hazy day of drinking until I had to consult a calendar if pressed calculate my own age. Holidays were spent, not with family and friends, but in a lonely crowd of sleazy strangers, listening to worn out rock and roll that invoked a pale nostalgia for some day when someone’s life was somehow better. I would recede into yearning for a life I never had, the threads of my over charged imagination weaving tapestries of a world where these songs that bled through the smoke and the darkness somehow meant something to me.
It was in one of these squalid lounges I found myself one Thanksgiving Day. It was an unremarkable watering hole in an unremarkable Midwestern town that had likely seen its heyday a full decade before I was even born. I couldn’t care less for the pot luck that the other alcoholics had arranged; in fact I actively despised their drunken efforts to make me feel included. I wanted to be included, but I reflexively resented the intrusion. I had a reputation, or at least I told myself that I did, of being the quiet stranger; the dark loner. Thanksgiving was a time for families, a time for jubilant cheering of sporting events, a time for being thankful. I had no interest in or gratitude for any of these things. I did have an interest in drinking cheap scotch, alone, in my tiny basement apartment.
Unable to cope with the forced interaction, I gathered my black leather jacket and set out for home. The air was chill enough to blush my bearded cheeks, which I found more than adequate excuse for taking pulls from the worn silver flask of peppermint schnapps I liked to keep in my breast pocket. The streets were empty, and my imagination soon had me wandering through a blissful post apocalypse. I could see myself as the last man on Earth; happily wandering home through ruined neighborhoods filled with shelled buildings and burnt cars instead of happy homes surrounded by the vehicles of visiting relatives. I even relieved myself on some strangers lawn, knowing that in MY world there could be no repercussions.
Reality snapped uncomfortably into place as I fumbled with my keys and stumbled ferociously into my single room apartment. It was colder inside than it was outside; I had neglected to pay the gas bill that month in favor of another bottle or two of liquor or a chance at some hallucinogenic mushrooms. I crawled under a threadbare blanket on the only furniture I had, a stained black futon mattress on the beer can littered floor, and turned on the television to see what wonders my stolen cable could deliver to me. I uncorked another bottle of cheap scotch and flipped through channels until I found the digital equivalent of my chosen land: an all-day Elvis Presley movie marathon.
For the entire afternoon I drank deeply and reveled in the smooth moves of the King of Rock and Roll. I saw him find the girls, lose the girls, fight the good fight and win the girls back again. He was an amazing being, a hero in a world of fantasies. He was everything I wanted to be, but could never rise to become outside of my own fantasy worlds. I was nearly finished with my bottle of Clan McGregor, halfway through the movie “Blue Hawaii,” when the action stopped, and Elvis Presley turned sharply to the camera, looked me in the eyes, and spoke directly to me. “Carl,” he said in his signature Mississippi drawl, “you think about things way too much, you know what I’m saying? You’re all caught up in thinking about what other people think about you, man, and that’s no good. You’re a pretty cool dude, Carl. People like you. You just gotta give yourself a chance to like them, too. Quit feeling so bad, man, go out there and live. You only got so much time on this rock, gotta enjoy it while you can. “
I was stunned. I was accustomed to flights of fancy, daydreaming, even the occasional chemical hallucination, but this was more than I had ever experienced before. I couldn’t focus on the movie, I sat in awe, thinking about what had just transpired, what Elvis said and what it meant. I had heard of the “pink elephants,” hallucinations brought on by overconsumption of alcohol, but I never expected them to be so vivid. There was no line I could discern where reality stopped and a world where Elvis could talk to me through my television began. I wrote down his words, chicken scratch in a spiral bound notebook, turned off my apparently magical seventeen inch Magnavox, and lay down to sleep off my altered state. ;
The next day, despite my throbbing head and churning bowels, I returned to the words I has scrawled illegibly on that paper. I realized they were, of course, not the words of Elvis Presley’s spirit returning from the grave, but the words of my own mind. It was advice given freely to myself, from the part of my psyche that I had neglected while I thought my rightful place was on the fringes of society. The power of one’s own self-preservation is incredible. My subconscious had managed to find a crack in the misanthropic walls I had built throughout my life; a crack through which to whisper to me that I needed to become social or die alone.
I had found a way to warn myself of the changes I needed to make. I took heed, though the changes didn’t happen overnight. And the changes aren’t done happening to this day. I slowly cut back on my alcohol intake, and increased my time engaged in conversation with others around me. I learned that despite everything I had told myself for so long, other people actually did find me interesting. And, shockingly, I found them interesting, as well. I began to learn that there were people who considered me their friend. I wasn’t alone anymore, in fact, I really never was. Through the voice of a hallucinatory Elvis, I transformed my social anxiety into quiet confidence. I learned that the human mind has the incredible power to pick you up and dust you off, even if you didn’t realize you had fallen down. Now that I am standing up, I intend to enjoy my time on this rock while I can.