"So, what would you say happened to you?"
"I woke up." He smiled and shrugged. It was no big deal, or at least that was how he wanted it to sound.
It didn't answer any questions and it didn't help at all. I remembered myself saying more or less the same thing, some fifteen years earlier. A whole lifetime apart from the here and now, or so it seemed. "I woke up." The smile. The shrug. It all fit so well together. It was a jogging of the memory, shaking up the brain, hitting the sour notes of remember me and then flying out the window without any fanfare. That was how it had been and how I once intended it to be. "I woke up." End of story.
Long ago and far away, back in a time I've often found myself romanticizing, a time when I walked on water and had a woman on either arm. After a lifetime of living in fear of most things and absolute terror of others suddenly having absolute confidence and a complete lack of fear made me into a superhero. Or so the romantic retellings of the story go.
In reality, the days of "I woke up" were punctuated by heavy drinking, drug use and, worst of all, convincing women to invest themselves in me emotionally before I left them at the station to move on to the next. I wasn't going out and about trying to get laid. That part didn't really matter to me. I never left a woman until she was in love with me because that was what I was after. It took a long time for people to figure that one out.
I'd been a very angry and unhappy person for most of my life. There are a lot of reasons why that happened. Most of it was a result of being socially awkward, extremely shy and withdrawn, and trying to live up to the expectations my father had of me which produced a crippling fear of failure that left me unable to act when opportunity or possibility presented itself. If I tried there was a chance of failure, so I did not try unless I had to, and when I only acted when I had to it was easy. It was easy to pretend. It was easy not to face my demons or to face the things I felt, the things that crippled me and limited me, because I was ashamed of those things and hid them as best I could. Hiding my demons took most of my energy growing up.
When I was a teenager we used to order pizza from the local pizza place every couple of weeks. Step one was to call the pizza place and place the order. This was a duty that my little brother and I were supposed to take turns doing. "One calls, one runs in to get the pizza." That was the way my mother liked to do it. Teaching us little life things, I suppose. The thing was I was too afraid to call the pizza place. I would freak out over it, so for years I came up with reasons not to call. It was busy when I tried and now I need to go to the bathroom. No, I called last time, although I really didn't. The whole idea terrified me. Whenever I picked up a phone to call anyone I would sit in fear because I always expected that when I made the call, the person on the other end would laugh at me.
I hid those fears and avoided revealing them for many years, but failures were beginning to pile up, or at least my perception of a list of personal failures, and this made me very angry. I was only really angry at myself, which is not a good place to put your anger. Yet the original manifestation of my anger found a target in religion, which I began to attack and ridicule with extreme prejudice in letters to the editor of newspapers, low circulation magazines and newsletters published by rationalist and atheist organizations, and then started writing articles for them until they found out I was sixteen and dissed me.
Everything I dealt with and was involved with seemed to lead to failure and rejection. I never dealt with it, I never exposed it and I never talked about it. It was eating me up inside and each rejection and failure made the next day harder and the one after that even harder. I hated myself. I really hated myself. I hated myself so much I took my own life.
"I woke up."
According to the legends from my personal mythology, those friends I had at the time of my suicide all split off from me and left within three months of my experience with death. Not one of them knew who I was, or at least none of them could understand me any longer. I had changed in profound ways, the most profound being that I no longer felt fear and had this amazing reservoir of self-confidence. That made no sense to those who had known me for years. It kind of scared the crap out of them, especially those who had been employing me as their patsy for years.
It started to become clear. My failures and my rejections, they were mostly par for the course as far as life goes, but quite of lot of the shit I had heaped upon myself was not entirely my fault. Or if it was, it wasn't for the reasons I had believed. The influences I had in my life, the people I called my friends, were not the best of influences. They were not exactly supportive and helpful, and most didn't really care about me at all. My best friend used to call around to all his other friends to see if anyone had anything better going on before he decided to hang out with me. I had another friend who burned cars as a criminal side job and often used me as his lookout when he went on these jobs. I was the driver on a stick-up job. I monitored the police radio on another late night coffee shop robbery. I was compensated poorly mostly because I never complained. I only participated because these were my "friends." I don't know where any of those people are these days and I couldn't care less. I don't want to know them any longer.
Until my experience with death I was extremely awkward around women and little in life frightened me more than being rejected by a woman, and I often was. That never seemed very important, and my best friend seemed to relish my rejections. I had spent most of the last half of the 1980s living with a girlfriend who was beautiful, sexy, older and a doctoral candidate at Clark University who came from out of state. He was my best friend, but he had this need to be superior to me, and the fact that I spent that much time with a girlfriend who was a cut above the women he dated pissed him off. It pissed him off so much that he ended up fucking her.
The fact that my relationship with this woman, Lisa, ended extremely badly threw me into a tailspin. I was broke and living off two part time jobs trying to pay off the debt Lisa had stuck me with when she headed for the hills. So I joined up with a little band of criminals to supplement my income. And one of the guys in our little gang had a sister, a beautiful young blonde who was about to have her twenty-first birthday.
Terry was always nice to me, but she was constantly trying to throw hints in my direction that she was not in any way interested in any kind of romantic involvement with me. On the night of her twenty-first birthday, Terry came out with us to the bar we all hung out at. It was a real dive in a less than glamorous part of town. It was the kind of place where it wasn't surprising to find an old alcoholic in his seventies passed out in front of the urinals. It was where the leader of our little gang picked up our jobs.
Terry got drunk. It was her twenty-first birthday and as the night wore on, she could barely stand up. I had given up on my romantic pursuit of her weeks earlier and had no intentions of the sort when I offered, and then insisted, on driving her home. I was infamous for staying sober when we went out in those days, and Terry was insisting on leaving, on driving home, and no one else in the group, including her brother even had a reaction to her announcement that she was leaving. She fell down getting up from our booth. She couldn't walk, and she couldn't form a sentence. I insisted again that I would drive her home, just drive her home, drop her off and leave. I made it clear. I promised.
She slapped me. In a long, stammering monologue she called me all sorts of colorful names saying I was trying to take advantage of a drunk girl. It was very out of character for her. It was the alcohol talking. I'd driven her home twice from parties in the past and didn't do anything but take her to her door and drop her off. I tried taking her brother aside and convincing him to convince her to let me drive her home, but in the middle of that conversation Terry disappeared.
Phone call. 4:00 AM. "Terry's dead." Drove into a wall on an overpass going twice the speed limit. Dead.
I should have driven her home. I should have driven her home. I should have driven her home. Fuck.
I blamed myself for her death for a very long time.
"Christ, man, if you blame yourself for everyone else's shit how do you live with yours?"
I should have wanted to punch her brother in the face for letting her drive home when he was her older brother, when he was there to look out for her, when he brought her to a shithole bar, when he let her drive home instead of taking her home himself or making arrangements. I actually do know what happened to him, and while I no longer keep contact with him in any way, I know he is haunted and that twists of fate have made sure he remains haunted. He ran over and killed a twenty year old girl while he was driving drunk. I've made peace with Terry in the only way I know how, but she still haunts me, just as others haunt me.
There was a place for all this, a place where I had it all in perspective and had found peace. And then, in January of this year, I suffered what was described as a complete mental breakdown. The events that triggered it related to my job, but that wasn't the cause. I began losing control at some point in 2006.
After my suicide in 1994, I told my existing friends when they asked what the hell was wrong with me, "I woke up." It was one of those cute things where you actually have two meanings and can wink at people when you say it. People started dropping out of my life like flies, but almost as quickly I was meeting new people and making new friends. It was a time of transition. And I had an angel that spoke to me in dreams and warned me repeatedly, "Any attempt to reclaim your old life will destroy you. You gave up that life. It no longer exists for you." I was sent on a mission, I was given a new hometown, I was given a new life, and yet eventually I tried to reclaim the old.
When it comes to the Seven Deadly Sins, the one that stabs me in the back most often is pride. It usually comes before a fall, or so they say, and mine was long and hard. Pride convinced me that I could make a relationship that had only ever existed in my mind work out like a fairy tale with pink bunnies and midgets. Pride convinced me that my strength and my conviction could help a severely mentally ill woman lead an acceptably normal life. Pride convinced me I could stand strong as she played out my past and brought it to life. Pride told me I could save her, and she relished dining on my pride, she relished making me relive the horrors of my past in living color as she tried to bring me down to her level. And she damned near succeeded.
She did things to me I cannot even explain, she got to places inside of me that only the people who are truly and deeply close to you can, and she had over twenty years of history between us to build on. All my insecurities and fears, all of my guilt and all of my failures came back to the surface. I loved her more than I will probably ever love another person in this lifetime. She was the one person I couldn't let go of when I killed myself, and I have had to reconcile that with knowing she is not the reason I am still here. She really liked that angle. She lived off it like a vulture.
And then I woke up.
Screaming like a banshee in some versions, but I did wake up. Survival is a little different when someone is killing you from the inside out instead of just putting a gun to your head. Her insanity and her self-destruction were not my fault or my responsibility, just as it wasn't my fault that Terry wouldn't let me drive her home on the night she died. I had to get back to where I once belonged, I had to get back to Orlando as soon as possible and start again. I was pushing myself hard. I could have moved more slowly. I could have taken time to make myself whole again, but I didn't believe I had that kind of time. I actually did.
Sometimes you have to wait until you wake up. Sometimes you have to let other people in and talk and listen. Sometimes you have to admit you aren't Superman. Pride can get in the way of that, but it hasn't been pride that has kept me very closed off for the past few months, it is fear. The old fears and insecurities have returned and I'm left wandering in a desert trying to find myself again, unable to work in my chosen field any longer, training for a new line of work, and accepting that I might have to deal with the weight of post-traumatic stress disorder for the rest of my life.
I'm still trying to trick pride into working in my favor. And I'm convinced I'll win.