On one particular Saturday, the afternoon was cold, overcast, and lonely I was, as usual alone, sitting in the living room, gazing absently out of the row of windows. I saw a bleak future in my world gone wrong.
I was out of work with no prospects and little, if any, self-respect. I felt left, as if everyone had sailed off, purposefully leaving me behind. I felt, in the words of Thomas Merton, like a "a dead thing, a rejection".
In a strange twist of fate, from the depths of this loneliness came an unexpected sense of anticipation, as if there were something for me to do. Something important was in the air. As I had done countless times before I turned to my beloved touchstone. I intuitively knew there was resolution there. Some people turn to the Bible, some turn to a favorite poem or other work of art, and some turn to family or friends for solace, comfort, and peace. I turned to Dylan"
"I just reached a place,
where the willow don't bend..."
This song is a mournful a ballad about moving on in the wake of what I take to be a failed relationship. Like a dirge of parting, replete with sorrow and loss. Sounds just like me. When I heard this refrain, the pent-up feelings of months of depression, despair and sadness washed over me, leaving me vulnerable and defenseless. Our family was scattered, in a number of ways. Our Wellington dream was dead. Our love shattered. Our hopes were blowing in the wind. There was no escape. There was no where to go. There was nothing to do. TV, talking, reading, and going somewhere all seemed pointless and absurd. I had struggled my way to another crossroad.
I simply sat in solitude, waiting. I floodgates of emotion opened. This was the polar opposite of the onetime Hoover Dam, yet directly related. I wept. The force of the pain of loss could not be contained. Cleansing tears flowed without restraint down my face, like drizzling showers drip down a weeping window pane.
TO BE, OR NOT
April 1986 + Augusta, Maine
I was passing yet another interminable day at the VA clinic at Togus where I had been a psych inpatient. This facility was just outside Augusta. It was a very bad day. Very bad.
Togus, like many VA medical units around the U.S., is not a particularly good place to be when dealing with intractable quadriplegic health problems and confronting the ultimate dilemma. Like Hamlet, I was faced with the question whether to go on living in an emotionally bleak and hopeless landscape, or not. Simply mustering the internal resources to get out of bed in the morning was like climbing Everest. Every day was another day in Stalin's Gulag, without reprieve.
I had become, not literally by any means, a Flagellant. Those medieval fanatics who lash themselves with whips and wear hair shirts to atone for sins, real or imagined. The big difference, obviously, is that they can stop whenever they want. I believed I was caught in a trap of my own making. I was not up to chewing off my foot to get loose.
Like Lear holding his dead daughter Cordelia in his arms, I felt bereft of what made life worth living. Guilt, regret, anger, sadness, and remorse hounded me, like the Flagellant's sin.
Over the years I had suffered from nightmares in which I was trying to run from a menacing, knife-wielding evil presence chasing me. I would be unable to move. No matter how hard I tried I couldn't get away. The blade got closer and closer. I felt doomed. When i would awaken from the dream, shaken and terrified, I would be safe in my bed, relieved beyond measure.
Waking and dreaming were now one. The seemingly malicious being was my own mind and emotions turned against me. There was no safety or relief. Nothing offered a long-term way out, other than not to be.
During this miserable period, I had had one medical problem after another, as you'd expect from one for whom life seemed such a cheap commodity. Pressure soars kept me in bed a week or more at a time (imagine a week in the Gulag in bed). Dangerously swollen limbs and dramatic weight loss were sure signs of lethargy, which is anathema to a quadriplegic. All parts of the descent to...Where? What? That, as Hamlet said, is the rub.
Back in Togus, I sat in an impersonal, glaringly bright room, readily recognizable to anyone who has ever been in any hospital waiting room. This one felt especially empty, like a room where one feels invisible because of the sheer indifference of everyone around you. Whether i was there or not did not appear to mean anything to anyone, including me. I wanted to scream, "Oh my God am I here all alone?" I was, after all, just another medical mouth to feed in an unending stream of veterans, all wanting something last week. Its not like I was General Powell or General Patton.
I waited, looking down. I looked down a lot. I was afraid to encounter another human being eye to eye. I was ashamed to feel so weak and in such apparent need. I was sick of feeling naked and utterly vulnerable. No secrets left to conceal.
I would have been reading a book, but even this innocent pleasure had been stripped away. I couldn't focus or didn't care. When you're facing not to be, in this context, not much matters. I vacillated from fragile confidence to search disillusion to deep depression to profound despair. There existed for me but one inevitable outcome: not to be. I was terrified, yet I always made it through.
I returned to the Catholic Church, seeking refuge, guidance, or comfort. I spent hours in silent prayer, yearning for some glimpse of hope. Something, anything, week after week, confession after confession, during communion and solitary anguish. My dark night of the soul pushed me to different territory, as I desperately searched for help.
One of the things that helped me pull very temporarily through was a visit to my VA shrink. He was a corpulent and imposing figure with an over-sized head. He was inevitably attired in a close-fitting, old tweed jacket and unironed baggy pants. His longish brown hair was unkempt. He had a wry, sour demeanor that said, "I'm only here because I have to be here".
This man, in his mid-fifties had apparently treated too many Post Traumatic Stress Disordered vets. He seemed worn out. I am still puzzled how seeing him helped. Perhaps it showed I was at least trying.
His small, dark, and couchless office was hidden away in one of the cavernous recesses of this otherwise overly illuminated bland landscape. Here existed a medical doctor and psychiatrist with walls displaying a lifetime of education and achievements. These were the real thing, I surmised, unlike Mr. Drudge's questionable wall ornaments.
I wanted urgently to tell him about this Voice that was always dogging me, like an Army drill Sargent constantly yelling in my face what a weak, sorry excuse for a human being I was. This Voice was for me an unanswerable precursor of my death, telling me my end was assured, inevitable, and imminent. The doctor didn't seem interested--my greatest, most pressing fear was of no consequence in that tomb he called an office. For all that, he seemed cheerful enough during my five minute session, as witnessed by this witty repartee:
Doctor: "So, Mr. Gill, how are you doing?"
Me: "Jeez, Doc, I'm really depressed."
Doctor: "Join the club."
That was it. He reached for his prescription pad, but as I was at that time trying to make my way back to at least a semblance of mental health drug-free, I declined. At that time, I believed psycho pills, capsules, powders, and shots compromised my capacity to determine my own well-being. Perhaps I was simply afraid of them. I held a dim view of those who let doctors tamper with their mental abilities. I regarded those folks as weak and passive:
I never believed in a pill,
that would do strange things to my will,
I looked down on those folk, but this was no joke,
now I never speak ill of the ill
I left his office wondering why I had ever gone there in the first place. Maybe it was helpful knowing the VA and this doctor cared, at least enough to make appointments for me. I usually left feeling a little better, which is saying a lot. I wasn't exactly Lazarus arisen, but I wasn't Lazarus in the tomb either. As I left, i thought how good it was to know there was a club of desperate and despondent depressives that would have me for a member.
Medication, yes, as the months went by and I saw no let up, I tried various medications. I guess I realized I was too close to something deadly serious not to at least give pills a try. I'm no martyr, nor a fool (I tell myself). At any rate pills were, at best, an all too temporary fix.
There was a frenzied run to an emergency room:
Nurse: "What can we do for you?'
Me: "Well, you see, I'm really freaked out here--
I mean depressed, and my VA psychiatrist
couldn't have cared less, unless he were
dead, of course. I don't know how much
longer I can hold on because I'm right at
my wit's end and if I don't get help soon
it may be the death of me."
A bit incoherent, you think?
This particular Nurse, who must have seen some hard cases, knew just what to do. Hearing the word 'death' and sensing my agony, she presented me forthwith to a psychologist/therapist. This astute and self-assured new-age youngster was in his middle or late twenties. He sported jet-black, shaggy hair. He had an obvious disdain for professional, or even presentable garb. His attire was random, at best. A plaid checked shirt with a tie unevenly knotted told me he would do the minimum, but no more in that quarter. He seemed idealistic and optimistic, like a hippie's son who had taken the parental flag and run with it.
I felt drawn to him, while at the same time envying his youth and good humor. He helped to pull me off the ledge, for awhile, using bio-feedback. He had a strange looking machine, with wires randomly situated. He hooked me up. I heard a slight buzzing sound and responded to several questions. He left. "What the hell is this?" I wondered. He returned with a printout and unsuccessfully tried to convince me I had strong mental abilities. I simply could not relate that to anything. I thanked him and left.
By this time I was out of possibilities. There was just nowhere to turn, nowhere to go, nothing to do, no future, no light, no hope. I faced an endless series of empty days ahead, joyless and comfortless. Absolute zero.
I waited aimlessly among the blind, cripples and crazy for my name to be called for something or other. The voice i had wanted to tell the doctor about, the Voice I was so terrified of, spoke to me from my deepest being: "Today is the day. You know what to do". I felt chilled in my core. I believed i couldn't descend any further. I had reached not to be. It was no Shakespearean play, dream, or metaphor. This was it.
Something beyond my conscious control consented without a struggle. "Yeah, today is the day. I knew it was coming. I do know what to do".
I had driven the road from Waterville to Augusta to Togus many times. I had picked out the perfect spot: a huge, jagged rock that protruded out of an embankment around a long curve on the freeway going north to Waterville. I had the perfect plan. I would release my seat belt, sped up to 75, and veer head-on into the rock. It would look like an accident. No one, especially Sarah, would ever know the truth.
I was resolved at last, after a bruising boxing match in which I had lost every round. I actually felt relieved; a great weight had been lifted off my sagging shoulders. This resolution was much like what you feel when someone else finally makes a critical decision for you that you just can't make for yourself.
I left Togus at long last. During this momentous visit, I had experienced the mundane and its polar opposite. Togus was an unlikely place for that. As the saying goes, 'When coming back to life, it makes no difference where you are', or something like that. I suppose that applies to leaving also, at least in the way I had planned.
I looked up. It was a clear spring day. The characteristic Maine April chill was in the air; a beautiful light blue sky the color of Frank Sinatra's eyes framed the day. I was reminded of many such days gone by that were once so full of promise, possibilities, and new life. I thought, "I'm never going to see this luminous blue Maine sky, or Sarah, or my family. How sad. Too bad it has to be this way".
My heart was very heavy despite the relief that passed so quickly. What was so strange, in hindsight, is that I felt no resistance. This, even though i was about to leave everyone and everything i cherished. I was crushed, yet resolved. Those who don't know this condition ought not to judge.
I headed back to the freeway. I saw a typical hitchhiker: mid-twenties, unkempt, and low-budget. I had bummed rides for what seemed like a hundred thousand miles. I recalled nights under overpasses trying to stay dry, freezing cold days in driving snow storms, and baking for hours and hours under the California sun. I had a soft spot for my careless kin; I had picked up many hitchhikers at this circle before. All of them had been going south to Portland. I would give this guy a ride to the on ramp, drop him off, head north, and execute the plan. I stopped; he climbed in. "Where are you headed?" I asked. "North, to Bangor."
I knew I wasn't going to take anyone with me into the rock. That was for me alone. I looked over at the hitchhiker. He was a most unlikely guardian angel. Sometimes salvation comes from unlikely sources. I silently pondered, 'You just saved my life, and you'll never know it'. Sitting next to me was this young, unknowing, and seemingly random guy who had single-handedly brought me back from the brink. This set me to wondering, 'What are the odds I'd come upon a north-bound hitchhiker on this day of all days, and just at this time?'
I was mostly quiet on the ride home, trying to ponder the imponderable. My unanswerable resolve and commitment to not be had evaporated in the time it took my hitcher to say "north". How strange, how simple.
As we passed the rock, I felt sick to my stomach and a mixture of profound awe and relief filled me. I let my Rider out at the on ramp to Bangor. I hoped there were many more of him to save many more like me. As he receded from sight, like the Hero riding into the sunset after saving the heroine and cleaning up the unruly town I sent him a silent blessing. Wherever you are, my hitchhiking Friend, THANK YOU and:
"May God bless and keep you always,
May your wishes all come true,
may you always know the truth,
and see the Light surrounding you..."
I thought long and hard about what I had almost done that day. Very disturbing questions demanded answers: What would this have meant for my loved ones, my Mom and Dad, brothers and sister, and my dear friends? And Linda, who had so intimately shared her life with me for fifteen years? Mostly Sarah. She knew my mental state far too well not to wonder whether I had purposely abandoned her for the last and forever time. Would I have permanently broken her then fifteen year old heart? What future would I have been condemning her to?
Would I have left her permanently in self doubt, maybe blaming herself? Would her sustaining, wonderful self confidence be destroyed, and she left prey to years of periodic depression, guilt, remorse? What of her life dreams, how would they have been effected? Perhaps I'm overstating my importance, but these and many other questions troubled my mind for a long, long time.
To this day, when I feel deeply depressed and out on a ledge, I am invariably brought back to safety by remembering Sarah, my beloved son-in-law Jeff and my beautiful grandsons Sam and Oliver. The circle of life expands. I am deeply grateful I am part of it.
As you can imagine this episode left me shaken to the very heart of my being. In an effort to stay off the ledge and protect my Dearest, I made a vow: "Whatever I do, wherever I am, whatever happens to me, my final act upon this earth will be for Sarah".
The light side emerges, the dark side recedes.