Despair, when it is not in the foreground of my life, lurks off-stage, ever ready to resume its leading role.
When my car breaks down or my computer or internet connection go down or my bank balance approaches zero or I lose a friend or lover or girlfriend or job, I feel despair. And all these crummy feelings in all these crummy situations feel about the same. Somehow, my abandonment in earliest childhood get stirred up again whenever I suffer a loss and these feelings swirl and compound until I feel like giving up.
My greatest despair came in my five and a half years with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome from 1988-1994. Here are some of the low lights from that time:
* After going for a three mile jog in March of 1988, I felt a relapse wash over me, beginning with a sore throat and then spreading out through my aching muscles. I felt like I had the flu, felt like I had mono, but there was no congestion.
That’s when I saw that something was very wrong. Never before had exercise immediately brought on such an attack. For the rest of my life, I’d live within strict limits for physical activity. For a bloke who could work 16 hour days in landscaping, who could run for miles and carry 100-pound bags of pesticides and perform 1300 push-ups and 120 pull-ups in 40-minutes, this collapse was a shock at age 22.
I was seeing a girl from my Calculus class during this time and because I didn’t understand what was wrong with me, I just pushed her away and never explained. When I tried to tell her a year later via a cassette tape, she didn’t reply.
When I moved to Los Angeles in August of 1988, I saw the endocrinologist Norman Beals and felt better for a few weeks. Then in October, I went on a date with a Korean girl named Sung and that night began a series of relapses that led to me giving up on Dr. Beals and eventually dropping out of UCLA in June 1989.
In the summer of 1993, a woman eleven years my senior came to stay with me for three weeks at my parent’s home. The day after she arrived, I called Diana, my previous girlfriend, and broke things off with her. She proceeded to write a long letter to my mom detailing all the sex we had around the house and the various things I’d told her that I didn’t want my parents to know. About the same time my mom got this letter, my dad overheard me taking a shower with my new woman.
My parents were devastated. My dad said I’d been using their home for immorality. They wrote me out of the will.
Though our relationship was swirling around in the toilet and heading down the pipes, I moved to Orlando to live with this woman. It was horrible. Every evening, it seemed, she’d talk on the phone with her previous lover, and eventually she went back to him for a night to get me out of her house.
I was still crippled by CFS, but in September of 1993 I started on a new medication, recommended by the psychiatrist of my girlfriend. This nardil started me on the road to a partial recovery from CFS and much of a normal life. In October I moved out, and on that first night, I slept with a black woman (an alcoholic in her 40s who felt sorry for me). Sex was a great antidote to my despair.
Far from home, alienated from my parents, I struggled to get on my feet. I soon got a new girlfriend, Paula, nine years older. Her love and care propped me up for a few months until I moved to Los Angeles in March of 1994.
For most of the last six months of 1994 and for the first three months of 1995, I lived out of my 1979 Datsun station wagon. This was OK except for when I got sick. Shivering and feverish, these were all-time lows.
One night, after my girlfriend kicked me out of her place and my Datsun was in the shop, I hoped to stay with my friend from acting class, Alexander Denk, but when he wasn’t home by 11 p.m. on a Saturday in October of 1994, I tried to sleep in the woods outside of Beverly Hills High School. After a few minutes I gave up, and walked over to my girlfriend’s apartment on Burton Way, just outside of Beverly Hills.
I knew she had a date that night so I waited until her light went out, and then I buzzed her and explained my predicament and asked if I could spend the night. She wasn’t happy but she let me sleep on the couch and lent me $500 to get my car out of the shop (which I repaid a month later, I’ve always paid my debts).
On the Monday, I walked to Venice, about eight miles, to pick up my car.
Rushing on bald tires in the rain to rehearse a scene with a hottie from my acting class in May of 1995, I spun out on Kanaan Dune Road in Malibu and totaled my Datsun. I never got to rehearse with the hottie.
* In February of 1997, I posted about an HIV outbreak in the San Fernando Valley branch of the adult film industry. Over the next few months, it felt like the whole business came down on me for revealing its secrets. I got death threats. When I played them to a police officer, he told me to call back if the guy came to my door.
With my credit cards maxed out, I worked as a temp, getting fired from three jobs for sexually harassing my co-workers.
These hard times were relieved on July 3, 1997, when I bought my first computer and within an hour, set up my first website, which I initially dedicated to my friends at the Mountain Top Minyan at Stephen S. Wise, where Dennis Prager and company davened. I was soon informed this dedication was not a good move and I removed it.
By the end of 1997, I was able to make my living from blogging.
Now that I was continually online, my unstable temperament and bad judgment kept displaying itself, alienating me from the friends I had in common with Dennis Prager. I got asked to leave from Aish HaTorah in April of 1998, and I stopped going to YICC and Stephen S. Wise as a result of fall-out from my blogging. I felt sick and began psycho-therapy.
Dennis Prager emailed me in April of 1998:
That you don’t understand why you forced me to go to a lawyer—e.g., your attempt to steal my Web site name, etc.—is actually frightening. Either you have less contact with reality than a normal person should have or you are morally partially blind. I pray it is the former even though it brings me no joy to believe it.
Only one other person in my life has so taken my goodwill and turned it around as you have. Since I have allegedly played such a positive role in your life, I would assume good works would flow—especially toward me—from you. Apparently my influence has been nil except in the most superficial sense. I truly am curious—does it bother you how you have alienated me? If I had done that to someone who I professed to admire, I would feel shell shocked.
My friend Laurie Zimmet, Prager’s personal assistant, writes on a Dennis Prager newsgroup:
Mr. Ford…is not a journalist. He did not send me any credentials. In the four years that I have known him, the only published work I have seen from him was a porn film in which he starred. It was given to a friend of mine for viewing. After a couple minutes, I shut it off.
My friend Chris Donald writes:
[Laurie] makes about four times your income (Luke the Professional Journalist). Perhaps all those Pulitzer Prize-winning articles and near bestsellers that you’ve written just needed more advertising or something. She doesn’t even write, and she’s managed to publish just as many books as you have.
My sister emails:
I feel so terribly sad, so disappointed. You are peddling porn! You are so intelligent and you have the capacity for good but it’s all being wasted. It is either right or wrong—there are no gray areas. Your rationalizations could be equally used to justify the supply of dead bodies for those with a ‘need’ to mate with such. Or to supply live ones for the psycho who ‘needs’ to cut people into little
pieces. Luke, you believe in God. Please talk to him about the path your life is taking.
On Sunday morning, May 17, 1998, I stand in the sun with a violinist. We’re afraid to play sports with other members of our Reform temple (Ohr HaTorah) because our hands are the fragile source of our income.
Eventually I give in to temptation and play football. I keep falling and hurting myself. A voice in my head warns me to quit, but I ignore it. I want to win. I want to prove my manliness. I want to recapture, if only for five minutes, the vibrancy of my life before CFS.
I rush the quarterback. Blocked unexpectedly from the side by sisters, I crash to the ground, breaking my left wrist.
Hobbling off the field, I stumble three miles to the Century City Hospital where I go under general anesthetic for three hours while a doctor fastens steel bolts into my wrist to hold everything together.
Upon waking, I feel alone. As my stretcher is wheeled into the elevator, I feel every bump and know that if I were to fall, there would be no one to catch me. As I slide into bed, I reflect on all my fractured friendships. As I sip coffee, I recall my past hyperbole. How funny it seemed at the time but now I want to salve the wounds of those I’ve infuriated so they won’t hurt me. A parade of angry faces
march through my head.
My friends in my Reform temple despise me for writing about Dennis Prager. Someone who writes about pornography should not write about a Jewish theologian. Allow the great man to set his own public image.
My Orthodox community feels annoyed with my insistent questions that disrupt their outreach programs to secular Jews. Then they find out I’m writing on porn. That’s it. Get out of here!
Porners don’t want me because I don’t share their fundamental beliefs that porn is OK and should not be censored, and that its dirty laundry should not be shared with the public. They fear a government crackdown on their Industry.
The nurse gives me coffee and I vomit. The hospital keeps me in overnight. I take a cab home the next afternoon and listen to Dennis Prager’s radio show. With my one good hand, I post that I find his words a comfort.
I stagger to the drugstore, my left arm in a cast, to pick up my pain medication. A middle-aged woman approaches me. “I’m getting a special feeling about you,” she says and hands me her card. She’s a psychic. “You should come see me soon. I’ll give you a special rate.”
I don’t believe in psychics but I visit her anyway. Her office on Pico and Robertson Blvds. is close to my former shuls. As I walk over, I look around to make sure no Orthodox Jew can see how low I’ve fallen.
I have my tarot cards read ($30) and they seem to unveil my life. Moved, I pour out my problems.
She asks me what it is that I want most. “To hear from Dennis Prager,” I say.
She assures me that something will happen in the next 24 hours.
Returning home, I find an email from Prager, my first in months. He quotes from my recent post of appreciation and adds, “You should remember that the next time, for whatever reason, you want to hurt me.”
That my hero still reads me, that I still appear on his radar screen, shows that all hope is not lost.
A believer, I now visit the gypsy regularly. I buy candles from her for $100 each and exotic spices ($200) that I mix with water and pour over myself in the shower before leaving for synagogue Sabbath morning.
I buy crystals from her ($150) that I grasp in my hand every day when I dream about what I want. I buy a charm ($100) to put in my pillow.
She tells me it’s working. My aura is cleaner and more powerful.
I accept her instructions on what foods to eat and how to lead my life. She’s not bothered that I make my living from writing about the XXX industry.
If I don’t visit her every few days, she calls me. She says she meditates on my success daily and sends good vibrations my way. She needs more money for “materials.” She inquires about my finances. I reveal that I have $1,500 in the bank and $18,000 worth of credit-card debt. She promises me my money back if my life doesn’t improve.
Following her instructions, I bring $300 worth of quarters to my next
appointment. She has me lie down on the floor. Then she unwraps the quarters and outlines my body with them. She pronounces various incantations and takes me on a journey of guided imagery. It reminds me of the mystical things we do at my new temple and I worry that I’m substituting cheap spirituality for the rigor of the Orthodox Judaism I practiced until six weeks ago.
When we finish, she says I need to leave the quarters behind. She has more work to do with them on my behalf.
After spending $1200, and receiving no further improvements in my lot, I give up on the psychic. I feel so ashamed about what I’ve done that I don’t ask for my money back. I tell nobody about the experience. I despair.
June 22, 2001
I sense something is wrong when I walk into Young Israel of Century City Friday morning. My friend Bob taps me on the shoulder and points at my bare head.
What embarrassment! I scurry off and scrounge through the children’s toy cupboard to find a yarmulke. It’s black and painted with ghosts.
Sitting down at the study table with my Talmud mates, I proceed through that day’s page without incident. Then I don my tefillin and recite the morning prayers without incident.
I turn to leave. Rabbi Muskin puts his hand up. “Do you have two minutes?” he asks. I nod. My heart races. I notice my Talmud teacher paces in the hallway. This is unusual. Rabbi Muskin brings us into his office. We sit down. My rabbi says he received a call about my double life.
“You can imagine how humiliated we feel now,” he says. “The shul is returning to you the money you donated ($600). I’ve never even heard of Luke Ford. I only knew you as Levi Avraham.
“I bought you tefillin with my own money. I’d like that back.”
I nod my head and leave the tefillin on the rabbi’s desk.
“I brought you into my own house for Passover and introduced you to my family. Can you imagine how I feel to learn this about you?”
“I’m going to have to ask you to stay away from the premises until you abandon your other life. It’s obvious that Orthodox Judaism fits naturally with you but it is also obvious that your work fits naturally with you too. When you choose to give up your other life, you will be welcomed back to the shul.
“Good luck. You need to get help.”
We shake hands. I walk outside. It’s hot. I take off my yarmulke, throw it in the trash, and bend over in pain. All the familiar feelings of abandonment flow over me and the angry child inside rises up to curse authority. My brain fights back, “It’s your own fault.” If I had wanted to belong to people who believed in “Hate the sin, love the sinner,” I should’ve stuck with the faith of my father.
I force myself upright and walk on. Though I’ve prepared for ejection since I stepped into YICC last August, I feel the stitches of an old wound rip open, and suddenly, for the first time in years, I’m crying out to God. “Why, oh Lord, Why again? Why here? Why now? Why me? My God, my God, why have You forsaken me?”
Life doesn’t seem real as I step into my van. I feel like I’m watching a movie, a tragedy.
Unsteady, I drive five minutes to my weekly psychotherapy. As I relate what happened, tears roll down my therp’s cheek. “How do you feel?” she asks.
“Why does it feel identical to being dumped by a girlfriend or cheated on? I feel abandoned. It’s my greatest fear—that I’m left behind while my friends marry, have children and buy homes. I’m smarter than most of them, yet, through my choices, I bring on rejection.”
“I can’t disagree with Rabbi Muskin’s decision. He had the community to think about. Rationally, Jewishly, morally, I see that. Yet this reasoning doesn’t change my heart. I’m enraged at my rabbi when it’s my own fault. I get most angry at people when it’s my own fault.”
“And you didn’t even get a chance to choose between your shul and your Web site.
“Maybe you’re learning shame? For many years, you wanted to do gratuitous harm to people. You wanted me to collude with you and say that is a riot. Over the years, you started to understand what it meant to really hurt somebody. Starting with Dennis, even though you got really angry. And then your friends at YICC. They seem to be coming from such a pure place. You destroy them. You got a taste of what gratuitous harm meant in its most raw form. That breach of
trust. And you kept getting warned. ‘Don’t do this to me, Luke. Don’t go there. Don’t use that language.’
“You went out with a proper Orthodox girl, and you asked her about giving head. That ended that. And you laughed.
“Over the years, you’ve learned empathy, rather than being a psychopath with no sense of remorse. I sometimes felt like you were teetering on that precipice of having no conscience.”
Driving home, I pass Rabbi Cohen, who tossed me out of Aish HaTorah more than three years ago. I wince.
In the safety of my hovel, I seek comfort from my press clippings.
In late August, 2001, I pack protein bars and books, and drive north up the Pacific Coast Highway (PCH) into my childhood.
As the miles tick by, I remember the major ways I’ve projected myself to the world and let them fly out the window. I want to lead an authentic and integrated life from now on without attention-seeking affectation.
I’ve long sought a secure personal identity through ties to a community but I’ve done it in ways that have guaranteed I will not achieve what I tell myself I want. Therefore, I must now embrace the life I’ve chosen and lie down in my van in peace. I am a writer and as such I’m condemned to live in exile as long as I am true to my craft. My insights into life are too keen, my heart is too pure, and my intentions are too noble, to ever be accepted by the unthinking masses. I am part of the vanguard of the proletariat, the intellectual elite, onward Christian soldiers, Maccabean revolutionaries, doomed to a life of Sisyphean efforts to rouse the
bourgeoisie from their moral slumber. I should not expect thanks.
I stop in Monterey for the evening and walk through the fog around the Convention Center. Twenty years ago, the summer before my tenth-grade entry into public school, my father held a series of evangelical meetings here. I spent much of my time alone, sitting on the fence, sucking on a toothpick, looking at girls.
Now I sit on the same concrete retaining wall I rested on then and I wonder why so little has changed for me. Then as now I can’t reconcile my contradictory drives to stand out and to fit in.
I cross the Golden Gate Bridge and follow my memories north. Like my life, PCH is a twisted, lonely road with spectacular views. I have no radio in my van, but I have one in my head, and its Air Supply songs tell me I’m coming home.
Just before sunset, I navigate down a steep one-lane road to the Albion Field Station, run by the Seventh-Day Adventist Church. I park by the river and take deep breaths of the cool Christian air.
Here in sixth grade, shortly after my arrival from Australia, I was first kissed by girls. I screamed loudly that I didn’t want to be touched but that only egged them on. Wrestling me to the floor, they piled on top of me and smooched me like it was an Olympic competition. Amidst the frivolity, I got an intimation of the
wonderful things a boy and girl could do together when grownups weren’t around, when community wasn’t looking, when love wasn’t fleeting, when life wasn’t concluding.
I walk up the gravel road beside the cabins. I expect a door to fling open any time and my former religious community to run out to embrace me. “We’re sorry about what happened to your dad,” they should say. “You weren’t supposed to go too.”
But everything is still.
I reach the end of the road. I look in every direction but spot no sign of life except the occasional wisp of smoke from a chimney. I imagine that behind those locked cabin doors lies my future wife. But I have no key.
As the minutes tick by, and no savior arrives, I realize this is no longer my home. I’m trespassing.
Turning around, I walk back to the dock. Watching the sun set over the ocean, smelling the familiar fires, I feel my life slip away with the tide. All my choices seem pointless. I’m back where I started—alone and seeking a sanctuary.
Desolate, I float out of my unwanted body and above my misery. In a blink, I’m transformed into my father and I imagine the world through his eyes. Where a minute ago, I saw only an inexorable tide that swallowed all, I now see the big fish coming to carry me home. I feel warm and safe, lost in the Almighty. I have faith, therefore I am saved. I don’t have to do anything to receive God’s love but
open my heart.
I clap my hands to break the spell of my Christian childhood, run to my van, and drive away. I have less than a day before the Sabbath and I must find an Orthodox synagogue in Portland.
“A broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.”
So, in conclusion, feeling cut-off from those I love breeds despair in my soul while connection breeds joy. The worst times of my life were when I was bedridden by CFS, particularly the first year when I didn’t even have that diagnosis.
Nothing that has happened to me in the past 12 years has approached the despair I felt in 2001 and earlier.
Friday morning, I listen to a podcast interview on attachment theory. I recognize myself as having the anxious style of attachment and that my most heartfelt relationships tend to be with avoidant women, a combination that leads to horror.
Despite all of my efforts, I’ve been unable to shift the nervous way I attach to people. As I look back on my life and my awkward and self-defeating ways I’ve attempted to bond, I feel such sadness and despair. I can’t trust my instincts. I can go to Shabbat dinner with friends and flirt with the pretty girls, and I’m just waiting to say the wrong thing and give myself away.
When I can just sit with a friend, I can get through anything. Alone, I feel weak. Without human connection, I’m bereft, yet I am only interested in the company of about 1% of the people I know. I frequently have tastes of the connection that usually eludes me. It’s out there, just beyond my grasp. How do I achieve the secure attachment style? When I think of a secure attachment, I think of Netflix and my high-speed internet. Like the typical addict, I turn to things, not people, for security.
What wards off my despair?
* Friends and a support system and a girlfriend and a hospitable shul
* Money in the bank
* Good relations with my family
* Vibrant health
* A good therapist and 12-step group
* Dedication to causes greater than myself
* Regular work, particularly if it promotes my growth and contributes to the greater good