“My mother did absolutely the best she could – there’s no doubt about that. She was the best. I was just really angry. I was the troubled child; any gray hair probably has to do with me. Very suicidal.”
Jamie and I are sitting across from each other in a dark wooden booth at East Tennessee’s Tenn16, having a serious conversation despite the festive Fat Tuesday atmosphere around us. We met each other not even an hour before, but Jamie is sharing intensely personal details with me with an open, casual ease.
“Did you try?”
“Oh yeah. They put me in hospitals, psychiatric wards … “
“When was the first time?”
“I was thirteen or fourteen, something like that. Every time I tried to kill myself, I was totally unsuccessful. It was like, ‘Wow, I’m so lame that I can’t even kill myself.’ But I know without a shad – it was God’s mercy.” Jamie speaks so quickly, he cuts his own words off. “He wouldn’t allow that to happen. Even to the point of – I was in the middle of nowhere, out in the woods. I cut myself, and I just sat there and waited. And here come my friends, going camping. Every time it would be stopped. I overdosed; got my stomach pumped.”
“How many times did you try to kill yourself?”
“Probably six.” My eyes widen. “It wasn’t good. They kept trying to diagnose me as bipolar, or whatever – it was never any of those things. My mother was racking her brain, trying to research, trying to figure out what’s wrong with her boy. She kept saying, ‘It’s not a mental disorder, he’s really disturbed.’ ‘Cause there was no real pattern to it. With a disorder, you’ve got highs and lows. But it was never like that. I was just a very deep thinker; I would see a tragedy and I would think, ‘This is horrible. Life isn’t worth it.’ And it wasn’t selfish at that point, when you’re a child. So my mother spent years wondering if I would come home alive or not. It sucked. I hate that I did that to her.”
Jamie grew up in Connecticut, the middle child and oldest son of a real estate executive/politician father and nurse mother. An unusual little boy, Jamie would sit on the floor, obsessively listening to Liberace and the London Philharmonic Orchestra, eventually wearing the record out. He would decide to keep only one of his many Christmas presents and donate the rest to Salvation Army, completely on his own volition. (His mother: “Are you sure?” He sure was.) She would respond to his repeated intellectual questions and challenges in complete exasperation: ‘Why do you think about these things? It’s too deep! You’re a child!’
Jamie dropped out of his private Christian school in tenth grade. “I have a very artistic mind – very frustrating. I was already doing college work and everything. Very depressing when you’re surrounded by intellectuals when … it’s not that I don’t like intellectual things, it’s –“
“How it’s taught.”
He nods. “It doesn’t work for me.” He underwent special testing to determine why he wasn’t doing well in school. He was above average in everything, excelling in music and art. “They couldn’t figure out what the problem was. And it really just boiled down to how you asked me. My parents explained that to the teachers. They asked me [the same question] a different way, and boom [he gets it right]. But at that point, I was way too depressed.” He laughs, ruefully. “What was it that Einstein said? ‘If you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it’s gonna believe it’s stupid it’s whole life.’ I was very depressed. Like to the point where it wasn’t good. So my mother wanted that to end.”
“My first drug was at 9. Weed. I was the old soul, so everybody who was older was okay with me hanging out with them. I want to say it was influence, but it was more curiosity than anything. ‘Course I loved it.”
“New perspective? I was a disturbed kid. I really was. My father wasn’t beating my mother – none of that was going on. They didn’t have a good relationship; my father was never there. That had a lot to do with it – no father figure around. So I think that was a lot of the ‘disturbing’ factor for me. I was just born angry.”
“Would you say you’re angry now?”
“Sometimes it comes out. I’m a lover. I really am that way. I’m Irish, so sometimes things sounds like I’m angry; it’s not, it’s just I’m passionate.” He looks down at the table, swirling the remnants of his Bombay Sapphire and tonic. “I was one of those people – the black sheep – and it was probably a lot of my doing, but at the same time, you want to at least put yourself out there. And if people don’t accept you for it, it hurts, you know?”
The next morning I drive out to 923 Oak. Jamie wasn’t comfortable meeting at his house given its apparent state of disarray, but he agreed to let me take photos of the exterior. It’s a duplex in an older neighborhood on the outer-outskirts of Nashville – the home he swapped with his soon-to-be ex-wife – she originally moved into 923 Oak after they decided to separate – so that she could move back into their custom-built home and keep their two boys in the same place. He’s convinced that it was the right thing to do, but it was a really hard thing to do, to be separated from his two most treasured possessions, and he’s reminded of it every time he walks through the door.
It’s cold and gray on this March day. It strikes me as an apt metaphor for Jamie’s general opinion about living here. He may call himself a black sheep, but I see a caterpillar during metamorphosis: shedding decades of angst, but stunted by the fresh, raw hurt of watching his family crumble despite his dogged determination to maintain it.
Hang on, Jamie. Spring is coming.