Spirit Is A Muscle: Black Out
Be a spirit of bravery who never looks back with regret, and never looks forward with fear.
Words Jason Goldwatch Photos Craig Champion
I try my best to live in this moment; to live my life like there’s no tomorrow. Be a spirit of bravery who never looks back with regret, and never looks forward with fear. I sit, and I breathe, and I be. Right now is all there ever is, forever. Basically that’s my trip. But, what if that wasn’t a philosophical choice, what if that wasn’t some lofty arrogant Buddhist bullshit, and was actually a medically diagnosed condition? Dude. Meet my dog Craig Champion.
I’M A PHOTOGRAPHER
Craig Champion is a 46-year-old photographer who resides in Los Angeles, California. He sits on the edge of his bed in his darkened bedroom. The windows blacked out, the video game on pause. He has large electrical scars on both his temples, hasn’t showered in days, is distant and suicidal. He sits across from his wife Jenn, of 20 years, staring blankly at a framed photograph on the wall. His wife notices, asking him, “Do you like that?” He nods, and blinks.
“You made that.”
He responds, “I did?”
“Yeah, you’re a photographer.”
“You went to college for it, that’s where we met.”
“I did? We did?”
Craig got his degree in early 19th Century Photography at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. He shoots only damaged, past-date film from eBay and exclusively on second hand Holga cameras (old plastic cameras known for being magical pieces of shit).
Jenn brings out a few cardboard boxes. One contains stacks of beautiful black and white prints and she begins placing the weathered images around the room in front of him on the carpet, filling the floor with square images.
“You took all of these,” she tells him.
She then opens a second box containing 30 or so Holga camera bodies, with various modifications and taped-up cracks. “These are all yours.”
“Fuck, they are?”
And so Craig began to shoot again. A first step back towards being himself. Ordering old film, and shooting cameras with leaks, and cracks, and plastic lenses, he began to construct a visual language for what he has been experiencing for years now. A blurry, warped, foggy, “over-lappy” sense of things.
“With Holga’s you can wind as long as you want, over-winding and under-winding and getting close and then far, combining things all in one picture; they’re cheap, and dirty, and it honestly doesn’t matter if I forget them and leave them somewhere. I found that shooting somehow gave me a strange sense of time. Like time has passed that I missed, but can hold onto in a way.”
“How did you find out about ECT?”
“I actually read a book by Carrie Fisher about it, she’s also bipolar. I was feeling basically nothing but side effects from the myriad of drugs I was taking. Lamictal, Losartan, Adderall, Lithium, Wellbutrin, Valium, Effexor, Xanax, Weed, Lexapro, Seroquel, Oxycodone, Percocet, Abilify, Prozac, Paroxetine, Zoloft, Klonopin, when I stumbled upon Electroconvulsive Therapy. And it just got to a point where I had no other options, besides killing myself, and I was like, ‘Fuck it, if Princess Leia can do it, I can.’” Craig suffers from bipolar 2, a bootleg version of bipolarity that brings him to extreme lows, without the high highs associated with Bipolar disease.
For years Craig had been waxing and waning from one drug to the next; gaining weight, losing sleep, and getting no relief from his symptoms.
So with that, Craig began an ECT regiment three times a week bombarding his brain and central nervous system with electric blasts. The side effects? Huge scars on his temple and Craig has lost 50% of his long-term memory and 50% of his short-term memory. Now a photographer and director and recovering dude-brother, Craig sat down with me at The Roosevelt Hotel in Hollywood, to talk about as much as he can remember — about losing himself in a never ending moment, coming back from the edge of suicide and using his photography to try and hold all the moments together. Craig’s photography is a strange glance into a never-ending moment. Into memories on paper and not of mind.
“When I decided to commit myself to electroconvulsive therapy, or ECT, I visited two different doctors. The first told me some abstract diatribe about why electrocuting your brain works, and the other told me flat out it that it works but anyone who tells you they know why is full of bullshit. So I went with him. Aside from sore muscles, the primary side effect of ECT is extreme memory loss. Sometimes regained, sometimes lost forever, the brain is a complex electrical system light years beyond what we think we know.” And so began the regiment three times a week. Craig would lay on a metal table, given a heroic dose of muscle relaxers, a jaw guard, and was put into a shallow sleep and delivered “wall socket” alternating current (AC) between 70 to 150 volts for 0.1 to 1.0 seconds. TRIP.
IN THE BEGINNING
Craig grew up on a sheep farm in Oregon. The classic misfit artist in a small town, his way out was the military and so at 18, he joined the Navy. Not long after enrolling, Craig fell from a training tower, completely shattering his spine. Bedridden and in ungodly pain, the doctors gave him a IV full of Demerol and he embarked on what would prove to be a slippery slope into the depths of complete madness and then remarkable rebirth.
“Hold up, so whats is Demerol?”
“Dude, it’s basically the best heroin a chemist can make, and after being released and sent home, no one told me anything about withdrawals, or opiate addiction or anything. AT ALL.“
Completely addicted to opiates, and back home on the sheep farm with what he described as “train spotting withdrawals.” Craig’s only thoughts were about getting high to get normal.
“Sometimes when a sheep is giving birth, the lamb is upside down in the womb, and we have to reach inside of the mother and physically rotate the unborn lamb so his head is facing down. There’s a tranquilizer that we used to have to shoot the pregnant sheep with in order for us to reach all the way inside her body far enough.”
“Jesus, I see where this is going.”
“Imagine? So, that’s all I could get my hands on at the time.”
So, Craig shot sheep tranquilizers in an attempt to pacify his opiate addiction.
Craig lived in a small town off the I-5, deeply entrenched in the local punk scene. Photographing the myriad of traveling bands that would swing through on their way to “gig” in Portland, he very easily found good Heroin to get high and kill the pain. And thus, he slid down a staircase into the strange dirty world of opiates, suicide attempts, and complete memory loss. “I remember once after a show, I walked back with the drummer to his van in the parking lot. He was a bit off-center and told me that I would lose it all but then get it back.”
JUMBO’S CLOWN ROOM
On Hollywood Blvd. there is a disgusting bar called Jumbo’s Clown Room. It’s the type of place that would only thrive in New York or Los Angeles; it’s small and filthy, and incredible, known locally for cheap whiskey wells, and the tattoo’d, older, larger, more weathered female dancers that entertain on a tiny, round, flimsy stage in the center of the room.
“I was with a friend at Jumbo’s Clown Room here in Hollywood. And I remember I was sitting there, and turned to my friend and said ‘I’m going to go jump in front of a bus’ and I got up, and I walked out about a hundred yards before the closest bus stop and just stood there waiting. Just waiting on Hollywood Blvd. for a bus to come. My boy came running down the block yelling at me, he thought I was kidding and went to the bathroom. But I wasn’t kidding at all. I was completely dead-ass. And honestly this wasn’t the first time, it was the last. The two previous attempts…stories for another time.”
FUCK I’M SO STUPID
I sit trying to relate, watching a half-dozen or so gorgeous women swimming together in the pool.
My attempt: “Sometimes I wake up in hotel rooms when I’m on the road and have no idea where I am for like three seconds. It used to freak me out, but lately I’ve tried to stay in a moment of not knowing where I am for as long as possible.”
“Dude, I take so many drugs still, I have to get up to pee like a hundred times a night. But I still sleep with the lights on because when I wake up I don’t know where I am.”
I again, I try to relate, even if only a little.
“I got lost at Burning Man one night on a bike and realized I hadn’t been truly, legitimately lost since I was a kid. It was terrifying at first, but then I found some sort of freedom in that. Is there some sort of adventure parade here?”
He smiles and looks down at the table, with a thousand yard stare.
“It’s sometimes cool afterwards, but… my initial thought is always ‘Fuck, I’m so stupid.’”
We both laugh, and I finish my drink. Noticing Craig had also finished his, I slide the two cups aside, and take a minute to enjoy the daylight.
The warm LA sun was doing her thing, and I step away from our table to grab two waters. When I return, Craig was staring at his right hand full of tobacco, in his left hand a rolling paper. I seem to almost startle him upon my return. Without hesitation he goes, “See, right now I forgot what I was doing. I looked at my hand and I saw this brown stuff, and didn’t know why I was holding it, or where I was. Then I saw you, and it came back with a flash. Like a light turned on, ‘Oh I’m rolling a cigarette at the Roosevelt with Goldwatch.’ It’s sometimes as simple as that, it’s gone, and it’s back. Who knows?”
“I couldn’t be around people, I felt like I was a drag, like I bummed people out, because I could no longer engage. I lost a lot of old friends throughout this. So I started taking night walks. I’d just walk into bad neighborhoods, I was cutting myself at the time and this, for some reason it helped me get relief from that urge to cut myself. So I studied gang territories, I was fascinated by gangs…Something about that ‘ALL OR NOTHING’ mentality really spoke to me. Living in the moment without thinking about tomorrow, and I couldn’t remember the days before, so I was truly in the moment. So I would walk into different territories to see if I would get killed, or if I would get fucked up or the shit beaten out of me or whatever. This gave me some kind of relief, like if I’m going to hurt myself, at least let’s make it interesting. So I’d leave and come home in the morning, sometimes with nothing. I remember this one time walking into my living room one morning and seeing my wife sitting there sobbing, completely inconsolable. I was like, “Baby whats wrong?” She looks at me and says, “You haven’t been home in three days.”
“I had no memories of leaving and having heard that, immediately did the, wallet-phone-pocket check thing, finding a small .22 caliber pistol in my front right pocket. No idea. I still have it too, it’s under my night stand, bottom drawer. I don’t know why I kept it. It’s not loaded, but I don’t know if I bought it, or used it, or anything.”
I HEAR VOICES
“Like, right now?”
“Like someone in your head is talking to you
“Well, no — It started after the ECT, I hear voices like at a party, only certain words will break through like, ‘’look at this’ or ‘lip service’ or ‘kitchen sink.’ I’ve often wondered if these are my memories lost in my brain, trying to be found, trying to get reorganized. All jumbled around trying to find their place. Like old conversations and arguments trying to wander their way back into place.”
LEAVING THE ROOSEVELT
“This will sound arty and cheesy as fuck, but the foggy, stacked, disjointed images I make with these cameras says something to me about who I am. And it just makes me happy to shoot like that, and so that’s why I do it. I think art speak can be pretentious and water stuff down, I just like the work I’m doing.”
And before he gets up to leave we toast our drinks, for a final thought.
“To an epic thrill parade,” I say.
“New friends and new experiences,” he adds. And as I drink, he abruptly throws the drink on the table. “Fuck man, I forgot I just put a cigarette out in my cup.”
This article appears in Mass Appeal Issue 54. Subscribe to the magazine here.