JOHN DONVAN, HOST:
This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm John Donvan, in Washington. Neal Conan is away.
Memoirs - they don't get written, really, until the story is over. Former presidents write memoirs; retired ballplayers, previously important celebrities. But sometimes memoirs do get written early, like one that has just now been published, and whose author is an NPR executive. He is mid-40s, and he is mid-career. But the hook to his book, and its charm, is the confession it makes that not that long ago, in his 20s, he was a guy who didn't go to college; who was working as a janitor in a clothing store; who had his suicide vaguely planned out; and who was checked into a mental hospital. I asked him earlier today if it would be fair to describe him as lost, at that time in his life. Yeah, he nodded; I was lost.
So now, he is found. Eric Nuzum, NPR's vice president for programming at NPR, has written about his former and previous self by revisiting that time when he was lost, and then at rock bottom; to explain why he was there, and what it was like when it's not so clear that someday, you will climb out. "Giving Up the Ghost" is the name of the book. And yes, it is also - literally - a bit of a ghost story, and a love story.
And as we listen to it, our question to you: Have you yourself been there, and how did you conquer whatever was haunting you? Tell us your story. Our number is 800-989-8255. Our email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. And later on the program, 75 years of the Appalachian Trail. But first, Eric Nuzum joins us in Studio 3-A. Eric, welcome to TALK OF THE NATION.
ERIC NUZUM: Thanks.
DONVAN: And who were you, 25 years ago?
NUZUM: A different person than I am now. I think I was - well, I'm sure the elements are the same, but at that time, I was probably on the external, kind of a goofy, happy-go-lucky guy.
DONVAN: What was your look?
NUZUM: It kind of changed every couple days, I think. My hair color would change, the clothes I would wear - I loved thrift stores, so I would go find things. I felt, my entire teen years - as many people do, to some degree - as kind of an outsider, an outcast. I often describe myself as feeling like I was an interloper in my own life, of the - never feeling much of a sense of connection.
So I made my physical self resemble that, in some way. It wasn't - I was kind of like the Amish of teenagers, in that it wasn't that I needed to be - I just needed to be un-modern or unconnected, un-contemporary. So it wasn't that I was trying to be anti-something, as much as just obviously different than what most mainstream things would be.
DONVAN: Were you dissatisfied with who you were?
NUZUM: Yeah, I think I was. I mean, I was kind of a dorky kid. I describe myself at the time, as a tsunami of dork; of - you know, some kids wore glasses and had crooked teeth, and weren't good at athletics or didn't have great grades or, you know, didn't - really weren't involved in a lot of extracurricular stuff and various things. And I was kind of all those things mixed together. And - so it kind of made me feel just kind like I was like, disconnected from what was around me.
DONVAN: What was the world you occupied, at that time?
NUZUM: Music. I loved music, intensely loved music. And outside of that, the world was pretty much my own head and my own fears, judged - or ruled very heavily by my belief that I was not alone when I was in my attic bedroom.
DONVAN: Yeah. I mean, I mentioned that the name of the title is "Giving Up the Ghost..."
DONVAN: ...and you write extensively about the conviction you have that there's been a ghost in your life. And it's a she. She was there a lot.
NUZUM: Yeah. Yeah.
DONVAN: Who is it?
NUZUM: I always refer to her as the little girl in the blue dress, because I had a series of dreams throughout my teenage years. Sometimes, I would have it every night. Sometimes I would go months - long periods of time without ever having any semblance of it. I was in the woods, I would be looking down a path, and I would see he. And I would walk towards her. She was probably 9 or 10 years old, blonde hair, curly, blue dress. As I walk towards her, I can tell she's wet; like, her face and hair are wet. Her clothes - I don't think her dress was wet. And never understood why. And I never understood any of this.
DONVAN: You don't know if she had been rained on, or had been pulled out of a lake - or whatever?
NUZUM: I have no idea, no idea. But she didn't look like she - you know, you think of like, the stereotypical look of a deceased person; she did not look that way. She looked very much alive. And as I'm walking up to her, she starts speaking to me; very deliberately staring at me, and speaking to me. And everything was gibberish, like speaking in tongues - no words, but very obvious that she was trying to speak to me. And as I got closer and closer, she became more frantic and intense and was like, shouting at me, trying to tell me something. And when I was close enough that I could almost touch her, I'd wake up.
NUZUM: Of course. Yeah. And when - you know, if we wake up suddenly, the first thing you feel is a complete sense of disorientation. You don't know where things are, you can't see things; it's dark. And the only thing I felt for sure, when I would wake up from those dreams, is she's here with me. It's almost like wherever I turned, she was right out of my view, it felt.
And I felt I could hear - you know, we lived in a creaky old house, and I could hear it. I thought, sometimes, I could see shadows move. I was convinced she was there and that in my mind, my teenage kind of view of things, was when I would wake up, she would go away at that point.
DONVAN: So while this was happening in your dreams, this terror in your dreams that your external world - as you said, you're living in a creaky house, and that creaky house was in a town called Canton, Ohio.
NUZUM: Right, yeah.
DONVAN: What was happening in Canton at the time?
NUZUM: I think it was experiencing globalization before anybody knew what globalization was. And this is the mid-'80s; the tire industry in nearby Akron had started to really contract. The - you know, Canton made vacuum cleaners and ball bearings and steel, and all those industries were starting to contract and move elsewhere. And it was on the verge of a seismic change in what had built it. And no one really kind of knew what was going on.
DONVAN: And you were a guy who was not in college, at least in the beginning.
NUZUM: Well, yeah, I was taking classes at a commuter college - on paper; I rarely ever attended them. But it was my excuse to say - to not have to work anymore. And so when, you know, when you're a senior in high school, everyone's asking you all the time, of course, where are you going to school? Where are you going to school? Where are you going to school? And I could just offer these classes at a commuter college. And people would stop talking, at that point. They would stop asking me questions about it, move on to something else.
DONVAN: Because you had a job.
NUZUM: Yeah. I had a job mopping floors at a T.J. Maxx in Canton, Ohio, and...
DONVAN: Was that occasional, or was that kind of ful -time?
NUZUM: Well, no. It was like, 20 hours a week, a couple nights a week, I would do it. And, you know, it was - I loved it because I could go through and do my mopping and everything and, you know, no one ever pays attention to the person who's doing the cleaning. And so I could kind of do my thing, and everyone kind of ignored me.
DONVAN: You ended up carrying around a vial in your pocket, filled with sleeping pills. That was your - vaguely, your escape plan?
NUZUM: Yeah. There was one college class that I did attend regularly, which was introduction to philosophy. And like every college freshman, you know, that's like mind-blowing. You're reading, you know, basic works of Socrates or various things, and you're like, oh, this is amazing stuff.
We read a book - and I actually went to that class - a man named David Hume, who was an 18th-century Scottish philosopher, who wrote an essay about suicide; kind of making the case for basically, if you feel like your life isn't worth living, you should end it. And I found out many years later that that was kind of like a farce on his part, kind of like an intellectual mind game. But when I read it, I took it very literally. And I remember - there was a line in that book that I still remember to this day, that said: No one ever wanted to throw away a life that was worth keeping. And I just looked at my world, where my days were just kind of like, filled with not feeling connected to anything or anyone; and my nights were filled with these visions and these dreams, and this feeling of presence that felt like a harbinger of something really bad.
DONVAN: So you felt you had a disposable life?
NUZUM: I felt I could - that the only way I could gain control of it, was to end it.
DONVAN: And you were - as it was, you were popping pills and drinking very, very bad-quality beer and wine.
NUZUM: Yeah. And not really because I wanted to feel good - like, it made me feel good. I wanted to not feel. I wanted to - I just wanted to be numb, not numb in the sense of like, you - like Novocain of something. I just didn't want to feel anything. I just kind of wanted a break from what felt, to me, like I could never get any oxygen because wherever I went, I was a disappointment.
DONVAN: So you're a disappointment. You're high a lot. You're changing your look every day. You're mopping floors. You're not in school. And then you drive a car through the front of your house.
NUZUM: That's not really - that's not exactly what happened. I skated up along the side of the house and knocked the wheel off the car.
DONVAN: (Laughing) OK.
NUZUM: This house - in Canton, Ohio - withstood very little damage. I think there was a chipped brick on the side of the chimney, on the exterior, and a limestone step had been cracked. The car had the whole front wheel torn off of it, and I continued to try to drive it, at this point. And this is something that I don't remember. This is all stuff that was told to me, because I remember being at the bottom of the driveway, and that's the last thing I remember.
DONVAN: Where did you wake up?
NUZUM: In a hospital.
DONVAN: Mental hospital.
NUZUM: Yeah, a mental ward of a hospital, that - and this was explained to me. And they explained to me that I had signed myself in, and had agreed to follow a plan to straighten out my life - which I said, I'm sorry. I have no memory of this at all. And they said, well, that's interesting. You're here to fulfill an agenda of what we think is - we euphemistically call a progress plan.
DONVAN: So how long did it take you to go along with the progress plan?
NUZUM: A couple weeks.
DONVAN: But you turned yourself around there, began to turn yourself around there?
Yeah, I think that I - of course, as with everything in my life, the way that I dealt with things I didn't like was to act out. And I figured that perhaps if I was awful enough to these people, they would let me go. And it was not this awful as in, threatening things. I would just do things meant to cause trouble, even among the other patients; to just try to be - just try to be an irritant to - you know, everyone else in my life had just gotten to the point where they would say, I can't deal with this guy. We're just going to let him go his own way. I figured they'd do the same thing to me there. They would just get sick of me and just - to let me go.
And I reached the point, eventually, of saying - as a result of this behavior, so much freedom had been taken away from me. There was so much that I couldn't do that when I was reaching the point where someone had to watch me shave, or I was allowed no time to be - ever - by myself, I just said enough.
How old were you?
NUZUM: Eighteen - 19 when I said...
DONVAN: Nineteen when you said enough. Eric Nuzum's memoir is titled "Giving Up the Ghost." It is a story about second chances, about love and yes, it is about ghosts. We'll talk about that a little bit more in the - moment, and we want to hear your stories as well. So stay with us. I'm John Donvan. This is TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
DONVAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News. I'm John Donvan. Eric Nuzum is our guest. The book, again, is titled "Giving Up the Ghost: A Story About Friendship, '80s Rock, a Lost Scrap of Paper, and What It Means to Be Haunted." At one point, near rock-bottom, Eric describes in his book an escape plan he had and that at that moment, the only way to gain control over his life, he felt, was to have the power to end it. Eric, I'd like to ask you to read a passage from the book...
DONVAN: ...and a paragraph that kind of gives us a look into that moment in your life.
NUZUM: Sure. And this was after I had acquired the pills, and would carry them around in a glass vial in my pocket for a couple months. (Reading) Of all the emotions I felt, despair wasn't one of them. I had torn apart everything in my life. I knew it. My friends and family knew it. I had turned out to be nothing but a disappointment and a failure; a doped-up, undependable, unpredictable mess who thought he was being followed around by a dead girl he didn't know. Little Girl wasn't my problem. Little Girl was a symptom of my problem. The real problem was me, and the only way to fix it was to get rid of me.
DONVAN: Eric Nuzum, author and now vice president for programming here at NPR. And Eric, that was the bottom moment, around the time that you hit bottom. But all along, I would say, during your downward trajectory, there was somebody in your life who kept you from actually going entirely off the cliff; a woman named Laura. Who was she?
NUZUM: She was a girl who, when I first her, met didn't really think very much of her. I knew that she was kind of fun; kind of interesting; a little, preppy girl; and kind of went away to be an exchange student for a year, and used that excuse of being kind of on her own, kind of disconnected, to kind of explore who she was - and kind of came back from that trip a completely transformed person.
You know, I always say it looked like someone had dipped her in a vat of punk rock, and never really rinsed her off afterwards. It was just like she was physically transformed. She was into literature and music, and loved talking about ideas and was interested in people. And we kind of connected and became fast best friends. And I had so much fun with her that she was kind of my - the one person I really felt connected to. And it was important, to me, to impress her. And so I think that the reason that she ended up becoming such a stabilizing force in my life was, it was the one real relationship -intense relationship - where there was benefit to being good.
DONVAN: So she was critical.
NUZUM: Yeah, yeah. She really was - you know, I had no idea of this at the time, but she was - I even had times where I'm carrying around this glass vial full of sleeping pills; that I would say oh, Laura and I are going to a show on Thursday night - a concert. I'm not going to kill myself today. I want to see that band, and I want to go with her. So I'll wait till Friday.
DONVAN: So we're talking about her in the past tense.
NUZUM: Yeah, yeah. Unfortunately - you know, she stuck with me this whole time, during this whole downward spiral; was really the only person who really kind of stuck with me. And then once it was time to rebuild my life, she was the person who, you know, I had not burned her away from me, at that point. I hadn't, kind of, through my behavior, expelled her from my life. So she was really the only friend I had. So I spent my time with her. And she kind of made me an important part of her life, in the sense that she was looking after me.
DONVAN: We've asked listeners who have been there, in a sense; who have hit this bottom and then found a way out, to share their stories with us. So we've got, actually, quite a few people waiting to talk with us. And I want to go first to Kathleen in Brewster, Massachusetts. Kathleen, hi. You're on TALK OF THE NATION.
KATHLEEN: My story is a simple sibling survival story. I was in a car accident with my family, and my little sister died - whose name was Laura - and this was in Toledo, Ohio. And I was haunted by the guilt that I had somehow caused the accident because I used to listen to the radio without the engine on. So I thought the battery went dead. It was a long story but for years, I felt haunted and responsible.
And fast-forward to about the age of 19. I found myself on a farm in eastern Kentucky, throwing myself into a river - forgetting what a good swimmer I was. And the image of a spiritual master that sort of embodies compassion, came to me. And I pulled myself out of that river. And it's been that spiritual feeling of compassion, and water, that have kind of saved my life. And it - ironically enough, my little sister was an excellent swimmer. So right now, I'm standing in a body of water about to go swimming, and listen - and telling my story to the world, and thanking you so much for the story about giving up the ghost because it literally felt like I was carrying my sister's ghost with me. And now, every time I swim, I have a tribute to her life and her love.
DONVAN: Hmm. Eric.
NUZUM: Yeah. Yeah. I recognize that feeling. Yeah. One of the things that I didn't mention before was that several years after this, Laura was killed in an auto accident - kind of like your sister was.
KATHLEEN: Oh, my gosh. I don't want to ask the year because it would be too strange.
NUZUM: Well, then, we won't. But you can figure it out very quickly from looking at the book. But the thing I can relate to is that since then - these are stories - I still cannot believe that I'm talking about this openly, let alone having written a book about it or talking about it on a radio program. For years, I've just kind of carried it with me as been - I have a responsibility because of the investment that was made in me, and the chance I was given. At that time in my life, I didn't deserve to be the one that lived...
NUZUM: ...and so I had to kind of make myself into the person who did deserve.
DONVAN: Kathleen, does that ring true to what you experienced?
KATHLEEN: That totally resonates with what - you just said - totally resonates with what saved me.
DONVAN: Kathleen, thanks very much for sharing your call with us.
KATHLEEN: Oh, well, thank you so much. I'm picking up that book today.
DONVAN: It's a great book. Let's go to Dee(ph) in Yuma, Arizona. Dei(ph), hi.
DEAI: Hi, it's Deai.(ph) My sister's an attorney. (Laughter)
DONVAN: I apologize. Sorry, go ahead.
DEAI: I was just listening to the description of the book, when you started. And I recognized my daughter, who is there now. She's at that place now.
DONVAN: How old is she?
DEAI: Twenty-three. And the burden she's carrying, is me. I've been disabled for almost two decades now, and she basically gave up her life to take care of me. I am getting - I'm better. I'm much better. And my daughter is - she calls it stuck. I think she gets - she's very bipolar, and suicide is talked about way too much. She doesn't call it suicide. She calls it just ending this, and getting out of here. And I think I would like her to go into a hospital, just - you know, I keep telling her just for observation, just for a few days; and see what they say.
DONVAN: What's her reaction to that?
DEAI: At one point, it was positive, and right now it's changed. The more down she gets - she goes into these downward cycles, where you just can't talk to her. She can't talk to anyone. She is now in a place where she would love to go to work, but she doesn't know how to talk to people anymore. And she's scared of talking to people. So she's hiding in her house - our house.
DONVAN: Well, Deai, I can hear that this is very difficult for you to talk about, and I can see Eric is taking this in as well. What I see on your face is recognition, Eric. I mean...
NUZUM: Yeah, I think about - you know, I actually don't mention this in my book, but probably one of the greatest gifts that anyone gave me at this time was my mother. On the day that I wrecked my car, and I was kind of loopy - you know, I had been doing some of the same things, been talking - I was very good at hiding my life from my family. They had no idea how out of control things had gotten and were quite shocked when they learned.
And that - my mother, that morning, someone had called her - and I'm not even quite sure who - and said, you know, your son did this, and you need to come home. She comes home, and she says, we're done; you're going to the hospital. And she took me there. And if she hadn't taken that step, that bold step of just saying, this is done, who knows what would have happened?
DONVAN: Deai, I...
DEAI: So you think...
DONVAN: Go ahead, sorry.
DEAI: ...do you think really, just going ahead and just saying, that's it; we're going - because I am - you had Laura, and my daughter has Robert, and he is her only connection to the real world other than me.
NUZUM: Oh, I can't give you any advice at all. I would say that from what you're describing, you're describing a person who needs help.
DONVAN: Deai, thanks very much for your call and again, for sharing that.
DEAI: And know that I will be buying the book today. And I'm going to have her read it, to let her know that yeah, there really is life after. (Laughter) There really is life after these kind of ...
DONVAN: By the way, just so you know, I read the book. And it's got a lot of laughs in it, too. It's not - there's a lot of pleasure in reading this book. Good luck to you and to your daughter, Deai. Thanks very much for calling us.
DEAI: Thank you, and thank you for writing it.
DONVAN: Let's go to David in Ottawa, Illinois. Hi, David. You're on TALK OF THE NATION.
DAVID: Hi, there. How are you doing?
DONVAN: Good, we're good.
DAVID: Good. I just wanted to say, first of all, thank you for writing this book. You had mentioned not really talking about it before. And I think that that's one of the most important things you can do, when you talk about those struggles - even though it's tough. And once you get over that barrier, it becomes a little bit easier. It's one of the many steps. And I just wanted to say personally, my story would be, I had the same sort of feeling of being lost, and not knowing what I was supposed to do. I mean, no one really tells you where you're supposed to go in life, and how you're supposed to live it. And...
DONVAN: At what age was that hitting you, David?
DAVID: That was hitting me right around 18. I'm 31 now. And so I started turning to drugs and smoking, and things like that. And so after - literally, about like, eight or 10 years, I started to realize I was not where I wanted to be - even though I didn't know where I wanted to be. I just knew it wasn't there. And so I decided to quit that lifestyle. And quitting that lifestyle brought along a lot of depression; a lot of those thoughts that I'd been pushing aside, as far as what am I supposed to be doing? And I started feeling very alone and very disconnected, as the guest was talking about.
And for me, I just put structure in my life, structure that I knew was for me, like, things I could take care of - keeping my apartment clean, doing my best to take care of my bills, and most importantly, keeping myself physically healthy because I knew that my brain would be healthy then. So I started getting the nutrients that I needed and eating properly, and exercising a few days a week. And that, I really have to say, made me realize that I'm living my life for me, and that I'm in control of my life. And no matter what I do, as long as I feel good, which, eating properly and exercising, and keeping things in order in my life - because ultimately, I felt a great sense of disorder - that helped me feel better, and pulled me out of it.
And again, I just want to say thank you for writing this because that is what this book is, to me. That's what people telling their story is; is it's giving people who are in that place where you feel like it's never going to get better, it gives them a chance for hope. And it lets them know that other people have been through this, too, which is so, so very important...
DONVAN: David, thanks very much for your call, and for your comment. You know, Eric...
DAVID: Thank you.
DONVAN: ...David mentioned something about how much he appreciates that you're talking about this. And - here's a question that I was thinking as I was reading the book, knowing - you know - where you are in life now; that you're an executive at NPR; you're respected. Sometimes you're a guy wearing a tie - you know, window office, authority, responsibility. People look up to you; people are counting on you. Do you have - do you see - do you look back on the previous you, and that's a different guy? Or do you have a - still a direct connection to who you were 20 years ago? Is there continuity for you?
NUZUM: Yeah. Sometimes, I think I am me today, which is just a crust or a layer on top of the person I used to be; and it's still under there, in some ways. But the way I choose to look at it is - you know, I do have a moment that I describe in the story, of being in a hospital and actually making the decision - while listening to a piece of music, hidden off in a room - that I didn't want to live this way anymore.
And I often talk about that if - you know, if you talk to evangelicals, they will discuss the moment of their rebirth; where they devoted their life to Christ and were born again. And to me, that's kind of my version of the same thing; of, I know that moment when that happened, when one life kind of ended and another life began. I mean, the same person, the same soul, the same body; but all those attributes became realigned, and headed in a different direction. And that's not to say it was like a light switch and a smooth transition and then afterwards, everything is cupcakes and sunshine. That certainly isn't the case. But there was a point where I really feel that one me ended, and another me began.
DONVAN: Let me put it to you in a slightly different way. Before you wrote this book, which is really a coming out about this part of your life, did you bury it to the - you know, for all intents and purposes, as far as the rest of the world knew? Did you, you know, did you fear taking the risk of telling people that you had been even briefly institutionalized...
DONVAN: ...that you had been using pills, that you had been sort of lost? Did you worry about having people know about that?
NUZUM: Oh, yeah, of course.
NUZUM: Of course. How could you not? How could you not worry that this could, in some way, be used to embarrass you or to - against you in some way, in a semi-public role? My own wife didn't know most of this. She knew - she could probably sketch it out in a 30-second version, but she didn't know anything about the details of it. And most shockingly for her - I finished writing it, and she read it for the first time, when she was pregnant with our son. So she was like, why didn't you tell me this before we decided to start a family? But I think she's kind of come to realize that - you know, Billy Kyles, who was on the balcony with - when Martin Luther King was shot, said history gives us witnesses to tell what happened. And I think that part of my responsibility of living this is, to talk about it.
DONVAN: You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News. We have an email from Bruce(ph) in Panama City, Florida. And I'm going to have to, because we're a little bit short of time, leave out a little bit of it. But he wrote: When I was 16, my family fell apart. I was failing every subject in school and was trying to figure out how to turn it around. Lots of neighbors, other parents and teachers did their best to encourage me. What turned it around for me were three people about whom I care deeply. In succession, my girlfriend dumped me; the woman who hired me over the summer gave me my last pay and said, you're a good hard worker, but you're just too much trouble, I can't have you back; lastly, my swim coach, who was my guidance counselor, told me if I didn't get my act together, I was going to end up in Vietnam as a grunt. In short order, because of all this, I changed - earned straight A's, graduated high school with honors, won a scholarship to college.
He's asking: Can you talk about folks who might have gotten your attention not by encouraging you, but by giving you the bad news about yourself?
NUZUM: Oh, I had no shortage of people who gave me the bad news about myself, and even people who encouraged me but just didn't quite know what to say. So I found the people who were the most influential to me, at that time in my life, were the people who were just doing interesting things with their life and were interesting people - be they a musician or a writer, or some weird guy that I had met through some friend, or something like that. Like, the people who really were embracing life and making it their own, and stopped making excuses, I think, was the thing that had the most influence on me during that time.
DONVAN: Eric Nuzum's memoir is titled "Giving Up The Ghost." And when he is not writing books, he works upstairs - right here, at NPR - as vice president for programming. Eric, thanks for sharing your story. Good luck with your book. And also, to all of the listeners who shared those stories - which were not easy - thank you for your courage in talking to us about it. And for those of you we didn't get to, thank you for standing and waiting anyway. Eric, thank you.
NUZUM: Thank you.
DONVAN: So coming up, we're going to be looking at 75 years after the Appalachian Trail first opened to hikers. We're going to talk about why, many times, a walk in the woods turns into something much more. Stay with us. I'm John Donvan. It's TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.