Almost the End of My Everything

June 17, 2010

For weeks now I’ve been avoiding the world of conspiracies, avoiding this site, other sites, and even my own thoughts and memories. I’ve been forced instead to think about the mess I almost made of my life, the mess I may be making of my life. I’m still struggling to sort it all out.

My wife, my two sons, and I had all gone out to brunch with some of my wife’s relatives. We’d taken two cars since I had some work I needed to do, and my wife and our sons were going to head over to her brother’s house where the boys were going to ride their cousins’ four ATVs. When I got back to the house I let myself in and noticed the alarm was off. I didn’t think anything of it at first, because this has happened before when we all leave separately as we did this morning. She thinks I’m still inside, I think she’s still inside, and so nobody sets it. I put in an hour of work before going to the kitchen to get some tea. As I’m filling the kettle from the tap I notice that the kitchen door is unlocked, both the deadbolt (which requires a key) and the lock built into the knob. We never use that door, it’s been impassable for years, one of those security door braces is against the door knob, and in front of the door is a low shelving unit my wife keeps the laundry supplies in. The key has been lost for at least two years, and only weeks before this incident the wife and I once again searched everywhere for the key because without it we had to disassemble some of my son’s college apartment furniture in order to bring it in the other entrance. And yet now both the deadbolt and the knob were unlocked. I felt the sudden grip of panic.

I’m not sure who or what exactly I was initially afraid of. The government was not my first thought, but it would become my primary one. The big gun safe was in the closet in the guest bedroom, just a few feet away from the kitchen. I quickly moved there, unlocked the safe and grabbed the only gun I kept loaded, my dad’s Korea sidearm, an old M1911. I went back to the front door, set the alarm to “night stay” so I’d know if anyone came or went, and then searched the house room by room, checking under each bed and in each closet. I even peered into the attic when every other location was checked. If anyone had been there, I saw no trace of them. Nothing appeared disturbed, and no one remained. As the adrenaline waned I began to get a little disturbed by what I’d just done. I was like a man possessed. I am ordinarily relatively meek by nature, avoiding confrontations whenever possible, sometimes to my detriment. God knows what I would have done if I’d found someone. My calm did not remain restored for long.

I tried to reach my wife to see if perhaps she had found the key or gotten a locksmith, but got instant voice mail, which wasn’t unexpected, her brother’s house has spotty cell phone reception. I went back to my office, and started to get back to work. My mind was still too energized to get back to the mentally intensive task I really needed to work on, so I tried to ease back into work by tackling some simple debugging, looking at why a SQL query was pulling the wrong data from a database. I clicked the shortcut I’d set up to automatically build the SSH tunnel I’d need for my DB front end. The login dialog popped up. It shouldn’t have. The login should have happened completely automatically using my configured SSH keys. The key agent was no longer running. That was odd. It quickly dawned on me that my computer must have been restarted, and I simply hadn’t been paying attention when I’d logged on earlier. A quick check of the event log confirmed that the system had probably stopped within 20 minutes of us leaving the house that morning, and whatever happened wasn’t graceful, the event log just stopped suddenly. This was not related to any scheduled update, there was no tell-tale sign of a blue screen, and nothing but a power failure could explain the long down time. And the fancy UPS that my computer is connected to would have kept the computer alive for at least an hour before gracefully shutting it down.

I went back into panic mode. Without particular intent I pulled my gun back out of the desk drawer where I’d temporarily placed it and left it out within easy reach. I began a search to try to narrow down the exact time my computer went down. The last event log entry could have been made a while before the computer was hard reset. While that search was running I examined my computer to see if looked as though it had been disturbed. It had clearly been moved. The speaker out cable I had connected to the desktop barely reached, so much so that I’d accidentally pulled it out a few times myself when I’d nudged the computer mere inches. The speaker cable was now disconnected. Just minutes before leaving the house this morning I’d been listening to a streaming radio program on that computer over those speakers. I now examined the computer in minute detail, looking at every screw head, every USB port, at the CD ROM tray, looking for any sign that someone could have gotten data out of my computer. And I’d swear I saw it, the USB ports usually end up plugged with dust or cat hair between uses, and I keep a can of compressed air handy for that reason. One of the USB ports looked different from the rest. I even used a coated paperclip to probe that one to see if there had been hair which had been just compressed out of the way when something was inserted. There was.

The file search completed to reveal that the computer had shut down about 35 minutes after we left. I looked for any other signs that there was a power outage, and there had been no power outage. All the clocks which usually reset with any outage longer than half a second were all showing perfect time. My son had left his non UPS protected X-Box paused on some game in his room, and it was still paused. I still had my gun with me as I walked the house checking for signs of a power outage.

The only conclusion I was left with seemed to be that someone had come in and perhaps cloned my hard drive, just as people had done at JPL. I just kept pacing the house, alternately moving my finger into and out of the trigger guard. I must have done that for hours, pausing occasionally to sit on my bed, look out the window for suspicious cars, check my cell phone, examine the various doors and windows for signs they were used. I didn’t think the person(s) had made their way in through the kitchen door, I supposed that was just the door they first picked, and finding it still wouldn’t open they moved to another door, and then subsequently forgot to go back and cover their tracks by re-locking that door as they had done another. Perhaps we had forgotten to set the alarm, or more likely they’d disabled it; I’d read years before about how easy it was to eavesdrop on and then clone the little key fobs for auto alarms, and suppose it is just as easy for houses. The more I tried to force an answer from a paucity of data the more and more disturbed I got, and the more time passed.

My family found me this way. No, they found me far worse. The alarm was still on “night stay”. When they got home that evening my wife opened the front door and the alarm went off. The house was that dark that comes at dusk when your eyes seem least able to make sense of what they see, made worse by my turning on no lights. The alarm horn was blaring from inside the bedroom closet, less than ten feet from where I had been sitting. My gun was still in my hand. I ran down the hall towards the front door, leading with my pistol, and when I came around the corner to the living room, in view of the door, and saw it open I began screaming at the figures in the door something they told me later approximated, “Who are you? Who the fuck are you?” They said I repeated it almost 10 times. My wife was apparently repeatedly screaming back, “It’s us! Don’t shoot! It’s us!” I didn’t hear her. I don’t know that I heard anything. I don’t know where I was, and in that state I don’t know why I didn’t fire. Someone turned on the lights.

The recognition finally came, and I lost it, utterly and completely. I broke down immediately, stumbled backwards the foot or so to the wall by the doorway to the hall, slid down to the floor, pushed the gun out of my own reach, under the edge of the couch. I sobbed uncontrollably, gradually drawing myself into a fetal position, lying on my side there on the floor.

My wife has always handled our crises; I’ve always been in awe of her ability to make the right choices in situations where I would freeze and make no choice; she spent some time in college as an EMT and told me about a few awful calls she went on that would have ruined me forever. My wife took command and told our younger son to go down the street and see if our neighbor, “Dr. John” was home and could he rush over; he was a close friend, and a psychiatrist. She had our older sun retrieve the pistol and lock it up. I found out a week or two later something that sent me on a brief crying jag; she’d sent him back to the safe less than twenty minutes later to quickly inventory the guns and to change the combination to one I wouldn’t know; how horrible it is to think of your own family very reasonably afraid of you.

I was just lying there, sobbing desperately, gasping for air, as she wrapped her arms around me, and just told me all the nice things I couldn’t imagine I deserved in that moment. I had very nearly killed them, perhaps even should have killed them, had I not retained some slim sense or cowardice or something. And all she did was tell me that she loved me, that they all loved me, and that everything would be ok, that I was safe, that we were all safe, that everything was fine. I am so grateful for her love, many is the time I’ve felt unworthy of it, and never have I felt less worthy than this lingering now.

Dr. John came over; he probably got there within five minutes. I was still uncommunicative, only making horrible, desperate noises. He sedated slightly me with some sort of injection. I guess my youngest must have given him a preview of my condition; I can’t say I’ve seen doctors carrying around those medical bags they once did. They led me back to our bedroom, got me in bed, and I was left for only a few minutes while she consulted with him, and made arrangements for the kids to drive back and stay with their uncle and aunt. I also found out later that they had apparently invented a cover story. They were kind enough to not tell anyone their dad had gone insane, instead they said the power had gone out, and that it wouldn’t be fixed until at least the morning. I’m not sure I deserve their kindness, either, to continue to look after my image in a moment like that.

I was calming down, or letting fatigue over take me. I was vaguely aware of my wife coming back in soon after, and of her lying next to me, and holding me. And I slept into the next day.

There is an awful moment that comes in mornings like that one, where you don’t remember what’s wrong with the world, where you naively think this morning is like every other recent pleasant morning. And then it suddenly isn’t. I remember many such mornings after people I loved left me, after my dad died, after my dogs have died. Perhaps the sedation I had received had helped reduce the intensity of my memory, or perhaps my altered mental state had done that job, because although I was roughly aware of the horror of the evening before, it felt a little like someone else’s horror. I just remained, sitting upright in bed. I was probing my memory, trying to understand it, and afraid that if I moved or got up my wife would suddenly awake and have so many questions to ask that I wouldn’t be prepared to answer. What could I tell her?

I could tell her something that approximated the whole truth, something that included the suspicions, stories, and experiences that had cost me a job and ultimately friends and colleagues. But that meant sounding certifiably insane if my truth was wrong, and perhaps putting her at risk if I my truth was right. Or I could just leave the episode largely unexplained, leave out my fears about my computer data being taken, and just present it as it started, a fear that a burglar was still or had been in the house. I’d already been lying to her for so long by keeping my truth from her, I wouldn’t really be making a new choice so much as just perpetuating the old one.

She was awake. Perhaps she had been. “How are you feeling?” she asked. “Like it was all a horrible, horrible nightmare.” I said. “Maybe that’s all it was.” she offered, and kissed me as she got out of bed. I stayed there a bit longer. After a couple minutes I heard her in the kitchen, making breakfast. And after a very quick shower I joined her. We ate mostly in silence, but not an unpleasant one. She wasn’t requiring anything of me, and I wasn’t quite ready to offer anything. The silence seemed natural. We finished, and she went about the next hour or so as normal. The kids would be back at noon, and I knew I had to talk to her with enough time before they got home, so I did eventually seek her out. For some reason it feels very difficult for me to share that conversation. I tried a few times to write it down, but I don’t get very far. Why it should feel harder than the rest of the story I’m not sure. Perhaps everything else could be framed by actions, and this was largely emotion.

At any rate, I did tell her something more than the nothing I had told her before. I didn’t give her specifics, but I did finally let her know that there was a reason I left to begin consulting, that it hadn’t been for the reasons I’d previously told her. But I presented everything slightly skewed, not that I thought there were secret forces working within the government developing technologies that were hidden from those of us with a right to know, but more like I believed the direction the program was going in was vaguely unethical, that lives were being put at risk, that money was being squandered, and… To be honest, I’m not entirely sure what I said. That’s the danger of lying, it’s so hard to remember. She heard it as I’d hoped, it didn’t make her feel I was crazy, and it sounded plausibly stressful, and perhaps it could have led to an eruption in some sort of panic attack when combined with a possible burglary.

She provided the solution to that mystery. I had gotten everything wrong, there had been no government agents in our home, there had been no cloning of my computer hard drive. She had called a locksmith, specifically because we’d had such a horrible time dealing with my son’s furniture, and because we’d have the same horrible time when he went back to college at the end of summer. He had come out the afternoon I was out of town, just a couple days before, and he had picked the locks and when he went to re-key the locks realized he had left some tool or part he needed at his shop, and because my wife’s schedule was crazy and she didn’t know mine, she’d asked him to come back on Monday, and she told him it was fine to leave unlocked, but secured with the bar and blocked as it was. And my computer had been moved, and it had been disconnected, but not by unknown persons. My wife had borrowed her sister’s digital camera a few weeks before, ours had recently broken and my wife was planning on trying to get it repaired while I was trying to use this as an excuse to get a new one. My wife had told her sister she could pick it up. Her sister did so on her way to meet us for brunch, she turned off the alarm, came in, retrieved the camera from where it was by my desk, unplugged the camera power cable which would have been in the same strip as my PC, and my sister-in-law must have moved the power strip just enough to barely unseat the computer power cable not at the outlet, but where the cable goes into the PC’s power supply. This tugging also moved the computer just enough to disconnect the speaker cable. As for how my computer came to turn back on, I suspect it might have been the cat. She often lies on top of the computer, and I suspect in getting on or off she brushed against the power cable just enough for it to make contact again and turn the computer back on. As for the USB port seeming like it had been used, I could not sanely ask for any of this information, so I can only guess that my wife may have plugged in my memory stick reader to copy the photos off the camera in advance of her sister collecting it. I nearly killed one or more of the people I loved because of a fiction I had invented. Just how much am I capable of inventing?

Dr. John had referred me to a psychologist he knew in the weeks following, just to see how I am doing, try to help me cope. And it is helpful, but I suppose since I am not being entirely truthful with anyone about exactly what I fear it can only be so helpful. You can’t expect a doctor to cure a disease when you lie to him about the symptoms.

I’m still trying to make sense of all this. I have been staying away from everything that drove me to this point, that invited all that fear, all that anxiety. I clearly didn’t and don’t have a healthy relationship to it. I’m not sure how I find that, or how I’ll know it when I find it. I felt like talking about these things was helpful for me, should be helpful for me, but it feels like I’m doing it wrong, at least in part.

I am continuing the therapy and journaling has been an exercise my therapist has suggested, so perhaps I can come to understand better how and what to more healthily share.

I may need to continue my silence here for some time, and perhaps for a while keep to topics which feel less personal and more abstract, topics where perhaps I can provide professional insight, but without directly knowing the persons or projects involved.

John