Valley of the Shadow of Death

I’ve been putting this off for far, far too long. On June 5th I came within a coin toss of committing suicide. I still haven’t wrapped my head around the depth of this, but I’ll tell you what I can, and perhaps you may have some insight I hadn’t delved into yet. All I know is that if I had willfully wanted to commit suicide, I did everything right.

On December 7th of 2016 I left my wife of almost 24 years. We’d had our problems, and I’d up and left her before. Seems I have a propensity for jumping ship and into the arms of other ladies. Just ask all 4 of my wives. I had a bad habit of talking crap about them – whether it was even remotely true or not – and then justifying it to bail. Bad habit. This time it wasn’t just leaving her, though. I had a 3-year old granddaughter, Laie “Lulu” Harding, in the Children’s Hospital in Birmingham, Alabama, with stage 4 Neuroblastoma cancer. From the time of Lulu’s diagnosis, I had been camped out at the hospital by her side and by her Mom’s side. I left Lulu while she was fighting this horrible monster and flew out to Washington State. It was justified in my mind. That was where my true soul mate was. I knew that if things with Lulu got worse I could always fly back. But I slipped 2,500 miles away into an enchanted land of water and mountains.

The first thing I did was stop taking my 60mg of daily Prozac. I’d battled depression my entire life, but out here I was sure I didn’t need it. Who needs medicine in Paradise? For 2 months I was as clean as I’d ever been. I had smoked marijuana almost daily since the 70s with a few respites, but out here in Washington, where you can go into a store and buy it legally, I didn’t. Also, I smoked cigarettes my entire life except for 7 years after my heart attack in 2010. But when Lulu was admitted to the hospital I found myself around a lot of smokers, and in my weakness and grief gave in and started back, only to quit again out West. I was in control of myself for the first time, and was determined to enjoy this bliss.

Something that I cannot divulge publicly happened the end of February that caused a discomfort in me, and split the single-mindedness I had enjoyed. Nothing unusual or negative had reared its head, no reason I could point my finger to, but it caused a sort of melancholia, as if a weight were laying on my heart. I did my best to hide it, but within a couple of weeks I knew I had to leave. I latched onto a lame excuse and used it, then began planning to implement my escape. I was doing what I had been doing all my life. Running. It was more important than every love I’d ever had all put together. That was why, on Easter morning, as this marvelous woman begged me to stay, I told her everything had already been set and nothing could stop me. I was terrified that if I gave her even one more day I’d be unable to run, and therefore unable to live with myself. I couldn’t anyway, especially not being in control. I had been slave to something or another for far too long. In my head and in my heart, I wanted to just escape. I wanted to smoke. I wanted to get high. I wanted to bury myself. I wanted it all to be about me and what I wanted. But at the time I had no idea this was the reason. I thought my motive true, pure, divinely inspired.  Isn’t it funny how in the moment a person can believe he is wise and justified, and then later look back only to realize what a load of horsecrap he’d been shoveling himself? That was the story of my life, except I hadn’t really, really reached that later stage. Oh, I truly believed myself sincere. But I’d neglected to do one vital thing: submit to Christ, let Him lead my steps, instead of leading my own. There’s an enormous difference between understanding this in your head and in your heart. Make sure, reader, that you take this to heart. Literally.

So, I left, devastating completely someone who loved me without reservation, someone who loved me intensely and with all her heart. Now I had managed to run out on a 24-year marriage, and a relationship that hadn’t even had a chance to mature. I immediately went to the nearest pot shop and bought $500 of marijuana, then next door and picked up two packs of cigarettes and a lighter, then headed east to my paternal ancestral home in the Quad Cities on the banks of the Mississippi River: Moline, Rock Island, Davenport and Bettendorf. I have two cousins and a 93-year-old dear aunt June there. This is where I set my sights. I wanted to know my father’s side of the family, to walk the streets my father had, and settle down.

I have always had a special inner bond with my cousin Dana. He has a sharp, brilliant mind, and every time we touch base inspiration is born. He’s a steel worker by trade, but is a natural virtuoso with piano and guitar, as well as having a cinematographer and director’s mind. I was excited to begin collaborating with him over a TV series we had come up with, and knew that together we could make so brilliant and fresh that the industry would sit up and take notice. Unfortunately, I’d begun baking my brain with pot again and consequently dumbing down to the point of blunt stupidity. I didn’t know it at the time, but from April until just now in October, I wouldn’t write more than just a few paragraphs.

It was such an immense joy to see my beautiful aunt and two cousins! I randomly drove around the streets of the Quad Cities, and looked forward to memorizing its streets and businesses. It was incredible seeing the mighty Mississippi River every day. I occasionally visited my Aunt June, but my cousin Dana worked during the day and was involved in directing a short film in the evening, so I rarely saw him. My other cousin Monte is a very quiet person, and it took me awhile to get to know him. I quickly learned that there was tension between Dana and Aunt June, and the more I tried to play the role of peacemaker the worse it got. I won’t get into the details, except to say it broke my heart.

With the help of a few very special, caring people attached to the VA, I was soon in an apartment in Rock Island. Except it turned out to be the place of my near destruction. It was up three flights of stairs – a huge challenge for my bad hips. Also, my heart and lungs could only afford me two trips up and down without a sizable break. So, I began to go out every day for just a few things. The only furniture in the studio apartment was a single bed given to me by a charity organization attached to the VA. My cousin Dana and I went to Habitat for Humanity and picked up a glass computer desk and old leather swivel chair. That was it.

There was also no air conditioning. I had three fans, and only two of the windows had screens. I spent many, many tremendously hot days sitting in the chair with sweat pouring from me while stifling air circulated around me. I smoked weed from wake up to pass out and didn’t write a lick. Everything I did only worsened my depression. I began to watch holocaust documentaries and other horrific stories. As I said before, if I wanted to set myself up for suicide, I was doing everything right. I harbored tremendous guilt and shame and self-loathing and self-hatred and abject helplessness, and these feelings magnified daily.

So, it was that day when I looked across the room and saw my belt hung up on a nail. It came to me that the kindest, most humane thing I could do for everyone involved was to end my miserable life. I’d heard quite a bit about hanging deaths and knew they could get messy, so I devised a plan to wear multiple pairs of underwear and then duct taping them to my legs and waist to make it easier to first responders. I already knew that I just had to cinch the belt around my neck, hang the loose end of the belt over the top of the door, wedge it in there and then just let go. I was going to duct tape my hands together also, afraid they would deceive me in the moment and thwart my plan. My legs were certainly not strong enough to lift me up, so I did not worry about them. As I contemplated the act, a peace came upon me – one I had not known for a long, long time. I looked at my calendar and chose the 5th of June. I knew my cousin Dana always went to bed around 9, and his phone would go to voicemail, so after that time I’d leave a message on his phone telling him to send an ambulance to my location when he woke the next day and turned his phone back on, long after the deed was done. It was all set. I felt a sense of calm determination and took it as a sign from God that this was the best thing for me and all those in my life.

The evening of the 4th I went down my contact list and began calling my closest friends with the pretense of just touching base. It all went smoothly until one of them (I won’t name them for their own privacy) picked something up in my voice and asked me if anything was wrong. When I said all was great, they told me in so many words to cut the crap and confess. I still denied any problems, but my friend told me I had to PROMISE that I would get help. Just to appease them, I promised. Little did I know that this flippant promise would plague me like a pebble in a shoe.

On the day of my suicide I had an appointment at the VA in Bettendorf, Iowa with the MOVE program, a weight loss group that met twice a month. The appointment was 3pm. As I drove there, and as I sat in the waiting room of the VA clinic, this promise nagged me more and more. I was certain I wanted to end my life, but if nothing else, I tried to keep my promises to my friends. A heaviness sat upon my chest, and I wanted to jump up and run out of there as fast as I could, but it kept me rooted to my chair. I and the others were called back to the hour long meeting, but I to this day have no idea what was said in there, because my mind and heart were balancing life and death. It felt as if I were rolling a dice and waiting to see what the results were.

And then I knew I had to tell someone there I needed help. As soon as the meeting was over I rushed to the reception desk and could barely get the words out through my anguished tears. Within a couple of minutes, I was whisked into a counselor’s office, a nurse practitioner’s office and the doctor’s office in that order, and poured my heart out to them. I knew if I left there I would go through with it. They did, too, so an ambulance was called and I was taken to a local hospital and placed in an observation room. By this time, I could not stop crying, as if a sea of hopelessness and grief were pouring out of me.

Within the hour I was placed in another ambulance and began the hour drive to the VA hospital in Iowa City, with no idea what would happen to me. The ER doctor at the civilian hospital told me I was a good candidate for electroshock therapy, and this scared me to death. There was NO way I would let someone juice my brain. If he said it to give me a slight sense of empowerment, it certainly worked.

When we arrived at the Iowa City VA hospital, I was taken by stretcher to the top floor and placed into a locked ward. It was quiet and calm when I arrived at midnight. I was taken to a single bed room at the end of one of the halls by a pleasant but serious nurse and told to change into a pair of scrubs. I had now gone from blubbering to a state of near catatonia.

She asked me point blank, “Do you want to commit suicide?”

Without hesitation I answered “Yes.”

The nurse stripped the sheets and pillow cases from my bed and replaced them with a rough woolen blanket just big enough to cover me. It was made in such a way that I couldn’t make a knot out of it if I tried. She then took down the shower curtain in the bathroom, rendering the room suicide-proof. The nurse instructed me to try and get some sleep, and since it was so late I need not worry about getting up when the others were awakened. I lay down on the hard bed and covered up with the scratchy blanket while the nurse sat just outside my room with the door open, so she could see me. I would have a shadow nurse for the next two days. That night I fell into a fitful sleep.

When I did wake up my heart and mind still felt like concrete. I had no desire to get out of bed. Unfortunately, the nurse (a different one) had other things planned for me. She took me to a large day room with hard, plastic furniture so heavy it would take three of me to lift one. There were four round tables bolted to the floor, a huge TV, and a computer console against the back wall that looked like an arcade game out of the 80s. I saw eight or nine men seated throughout the enormous room, watching short clips of the ocean calmly lapping the shore, reading books from a substantial collection in shelves around the TV, gathering around one of the tables with coloring books and a coffee can full of crayons and markers, and otherwise wandering about or relaxing in one of the oversized chairs. I immediately went to the table farthest from the others and sat with my arms on it cradling my head. No one approached me, which was fine, because I was afraid they were all violent psycho killers. The nurse sat across from me silently.

Lunch arrived on a large tray cart and all the men came to the tables. I refused mine and asked to go back to my room. There I stayed the rest of the day and night. Throughout that first day, though, I was visited by an almost steady stream of nurse and doctors asking me all sorts of questions about my history and state of mind. I constantly asked to be able to smoke at least one cigarette, thinking this would lessen my feeling of being trapped, but was as constantly denied. The first 48 hours were horrible to me. I regretted my decision to ask for help, and told the staff this. Actually, what I was doing turned out to be the one thing that freed me from my suicidal ideations and depression, and set me on a new course of spiritual growth: honesty. Some force within me – that I know now to be the Holy Spirit – compelled me to tell the truth about everything, no matter how painful. Those first two days I thought I had nothing to lose, and told the psychiatrists about my childhood sexual abuse, my drug and alcohol abuse, my multiple marriages – all which I cheated on – and my propensity to run when things got too hot for me. I even told them about my brief membership in the Church of Satan during my late teen years, and my fifteen year relationship with the occidental satsang religion Eckankar. I told them I was a Sufi Muslim for years before converting to Christianity, but was a Christian only minimally. It felt satisfactory sharing my past to someone who wouldn’t openly judge me. Still, I felt dead inside and only wanted to put an end to my miserable, failed life.

In my next blog post, I will show how I was taken through a transformation I had no way of anticipating, and how I was brought to where I am now.