Editor’s Note: Guys! Remember this post? Well, it inspired an anonymous ABL reader to revisit a painful sh*t storm in his past and write about how he plowed through it. Today I have the great honor of sharing his moving story.
There are 4 reasons why you should read it:
- This dude is an incredible writer and story teller. My mother-in-law is probably relieved that some level of class has finally made it to my blog.
- Even if you can’t directly relate to the circumstances of this man’s sh*t storm, one day you will be able to relate to this type of pain.
- His story brings to life the points I made in this post about therapy. (And anyone who makes me look like I know what the heck I’m talking about gets my full endorsement, of course!)
- He is a perfect example of someone whose ball size grew as a result of seeking out and re-establishing balance and beauty in his life after a trauma.
And now, his story…
* * * *
No one is supposed to die when they’re in their twenties.
But, it happens. Jim Morrison, Jimi Hendrix and Kurt Kobain aside, it happens fairly often. Sometimes it’s something you see coming, a part of a life, hard lived, usually from someone who burned brightly before going out with a bang.
And, sometimes, in quiet neighborhoods in Cherry Hill, New Jersey, it happens to people who never even saw it coming, surrounded by unsuspecting onlookers.
There were thirty or so people gathered at a couple’s home. They were holding an event, and everyone was enjoying themselves. People were drinking and eating and socializing. Having burned through the college years, it was a tame affair. Nothing illicit or out of hand. We were a bunch of mostly recently graduated college folks and old friends enjoying a summer day. The sun was hanging hazily above us, the mid-June air just starting to gain the heavy qualities that heralded deep summer.
I was with a tight knit group of folks toward the back of the yard, just outside of a patch of shade when death came calling. My friend, whom we will call The Baron, was speaking to me when it happened. One moment he was speaking to us – to me. And suddenly he stopped, his face confused. He went down onto one knee.
We didn’t know what was happening. We were still moving along, not knowing what was about to transpire. Eventually, I asked the Baron, ‘Are you okay?’
Ever eloquent to the end, the Baron replied with the last words he would ever say: ‘That has yet to be determined.’
And then, he just… fell over.
We thought it was heatstroke perhaps, maybe a beer too many. Then he started to shake and give great heaving breaths. Within a couple of minutes it stopped.
My friend, the Baron, died before they even got him into the ambulance. We would find out some weeks later that everything we could have done was for naught. His heart, which was grossly enlarged along one side had simply come apart at the seams of the ventricles by my understanding, the result of a congenital defect he did not even know he had. He had died quickly and without pain they said. I saw it. I think they were right. The lights were out through his last moments and… I hope it was over before he knew it.
But, the thing I couldn’t know yet was that the person I was died with him. On June 11th, 2005, something inside of me broke.
It has never returned.
In the indeterminate and all too short amount of time that we clung onto the idea and hope that the Baron was not beyond medical assistance, I remember rushing alongside EMTs as they came for my friend. We were clinging onto the hope that medical science would bring him back to us, would save him. I don’t remember much else than saying ‘thank you’ over and over again to the paramedics and begging them. ‘Please help my friend. Please help him. He has a little girl.’
We fretted as the ambulance pulled away, the Baroness, his wife, was the only one allowed to go with him. He was pronounced dead on arrival. They tagged him. And they made the call to the residence we had all gathered at.
After that, I can’t recall much. Everything just fell apart at the seams, much like the Baron’s heart had.
I remember a few scraps. I ran into the rec room and began to shout at the top of my lungs. I hollered into the ether. Why him? Why not me? The Baron, he was doing something with his life. He had a wife. He’d started a family, his daughter only two months old. I collapsed and started hitting the couch I slumped over. I didn’t know what else to do.
I had to call others. To tell people. It hit each person a different way. My father made an assumption I had to correct. One friend broke into complete hysterics. Another reacted as if I had reported the weather to her; she’d been too stunned to even begin to process it.
Somehow we got to the hospital. I don’t remember who drove. They were very accomodating at the ER about how many of us there were. We were crowding out the area. People who were legitimately ill were inconvenienced no doubt, but all of us were grievously injured in a genuine and hurtful way that medicine simply does not fix. We formed a kind of mob of the walking wounded, but had nothing anyone could technically fix.
Eventually, in smaller groups, they let us in to be with him. To say good bye to our friend.
And there he was. Pale. Cold. The intubation tube was sticking obscenely out of his mouth. They had to keep it in they said. So the throat wouldn’t collapse when the mortician came for the body.
I couldn’t stay at first. I had to leave and collect myself. Seeing the man I served as a groomsman, the guy who ran our semi-weekly games, the proud father of a two-month old daughter cold and dead there… it just wasn’t going to happen at first. But, I could not look away. I sat beside him and I held his hand. I don’t know why I did that. He was beyond comfort. I had to fight every urge to tear out the intubation tube, mortician be damned. I wanted to flatten his cowlick. I wanted to shake him. Bring him back. Make him get up and quit fucking around.
We all grieved. We simply had no precedent. This was not as it should be. For anyone who ever knew the Baron, the idea that he could die was simply impossible.
My roommate, also a friend of the Baron’s, came up from Delaware to collect me and to stand vigil over the body for a time. It was something that truly needed to be seen to believed. The Baron was that vibrant.
Once I was home, I drank myself stupid.
It seemed like the right thing to do.
I wanted to die anyway.
The next morning I broke down when I checked my messages and heard him on my voice mail. The screaming and crying began again. I listened to the message over and over again until I lost count. I continued to drink whenever I could get my hands on something. I’m not proud of this. But, there it is.
I tried to go back to work after a single day. It was unbearable. I stuck it out for half of a shift and went home. I took another day. I went to the funeral. It was open casket, which I hate. ‘It looks like he’s sleeping in gentle repose.’ I’ve heard that chestnut again and again at funerals. It’s bullshit. A corpse is nothing but a corpse no matter how much makeup you put on them. I felt like a ghoul. Even moreso than when I sat in that goddamned emergency room holding his dead hand.
I was numb through the whole viewing. My heart was sore and I’d had a headache from the drinking and from the constant stress. It wasn’t made better by having to tell the Baron’s mother how her son died. Someone had told her I was there ringside and she had to know. I’ll never forget that. It was one of the worst lows in my life.
I drank recklessly for another week. My booze of choice was an expensive variant of Jack Daniels that the Baron and I favored when our goal was to get hammered in short order. Hammered was preferable to dealing with the problem, so I drank a lot of that Jack. After a week I felt my stomach begin to roil on an almost constant basis and managed to get it under control. Some vestigal part of me that clung to the idea of life kicked in and let me put the bottle aside. It took a month for the stomach pain to subside.
But, being sober meant having every ounce of my faculties in place, and anyone who knows me well can tell you I am a dweller. Given that, it didn’t take long until I completely broke down again. And again. And again. I’d fall where I stood or slump down against the wall and just disconnect or scream unintelligibly. When I closed my eyes, I saw him on the gurney. When I slept, I relived the event. My heart literally ached. ‘That’s why we call it heartache’ my mother told me as I wept into her shoulder on a winter evening.
When a breakdown threatened to happen at work, my supervisor reminded me that I had to keep my shit together if I wanted to keep my job. He let me out for a quick break and I fled like a thief in the night from the office.
The damage was profound. I’d lost people before, but this was the first time death had paid a visit and decided to give me front row seats. In that moment, I had the epiphany that I could not do this by myself. As I sat in the parking lot, weeping in my car, I picked up the phone and dialed a number given to me by the Baron’s widow. Twenty-six and a widow. It made me cry again as I left a message for the person at the other end – a total stranger. I had to sound like a fucking lunatic.
All the same, I got a call back that night, after she had left her office for the day. My message left an impression. She wanted to see me as soon as possible. I consented.
I had entrusted my life to a stranger.
A stranger that would save my life.
I remember telling the doc: ‘I don’t want pills. I have to be able to solve this myself.’ This came right out of the gate before I even started to explain the problems. Before I explained to her that the person whose death had come to define me was one of her former patients.
The doc nodded and wrote that bit down. She said that was okay. And then, we got down to brass tacks over a course of weeks. She whittled me down into the proper categories. Stubborn. Creative. Empathetic. Intelligent. Prone to short-lived bursts of anger under duress. The first few sessions were innocuous. Mostly just me and her, talking about whatever came to mind.
She blindsided me about four months into the process. I never even saw it coming when the dam finally broke. She slowly worked into it. I can’t even remember how she did it. She just took down all of the barriers. There’s a reason psychologists scare some people. They can take all your defenses away from you before you even know they’ve done it so you can finally look at what’s inside of you and ask the right questions to set things straight, or at least set them straighter. She put me there on that grassy backyard again somehow, looking at my friend’s final breaths. And then came the question.
‘What did you feel?’
And as I sobbed into tissues, I heard my strained voice say ‘I never felt so helpless in my entire life.’
And in that moment, almost an entire year later, I finally started to rebuild.
You’ll remember at the beginning of this that I said I lost who I was that day, that the me that existed before that summer day is gone forever. I meant that. The unfortunate truth for something like what I suffered (and still suffer from occasionally) is that this sort of wound doesn’t heal. That it can’t heal. You carry it for the rest of your life to some effect or another.
But, it didn’t mean that I was broken. They can rebuild you, as they used to say.
The process the doc and I went through simply healed the edges of the wound so it could at least start to scab, metaphorically speaking. It doesn’t erase the trauma. Nothing can. But, it does relieve the symptoms. It helps you learn how to deal with the realities of the way things have to be. She helped my put life back in order. She listened to things I could not admit to my friends, or even my family. She addressed fears and let me know that I was not alone. It’s amazing how hard it is to see that when you are so far gone down the rabbit hole that you can’t see light anymore.
I wouldn’t call what I have Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. It’s not as intense. But, certain things still toss me right back into that moment of complete helplessness. I have trouble watching hospital dramas, or movies where someone is in a room with a corpse. It destroyed the way I watched a show the Baron and I positively loved: Dead Like Me. Funerals destroy me rather than give closure or make me feel like we’re celebrating a life. When I lay down to sleep some nights, I can still hear an old familiar whisper reminding me that I have an appointment. And some day, without preamble or warning, death will come for me and everything I love.
But, reaching out made all the difference. Realizing that I did not have to face this thing alone, that there was nothing wrong with finding a doctor, the kind that you talk to (to quote Dicky Barrett). I didn’t have to suffer alone. I could talk about it if I had to. I’ll even admit that after a long struggle with not just my grief, I finally came to accept after much trepidation that perhaps medication might help. And it has. Two years into treatment, I have overcome some of the obstacles presented before me. I carry less fear and more hope. I owe much to my doc.
I don’t know how long I’ll keep it together or if I’ll ever come off the medicine. I don’t know how much time I have, or how much time my family and friends have. But, with the steps I have taken, and with the tools the doc gave me, I intend to enjoy what time I have and to spend that time living rather than dying. And when my time comes, I hope that my friend the Baron will be waiting to take me to whatever comes after this life.
And I should hope to be in good mental shape when I find him.