Do you have an episode, or experience, in your life you seldom, or never, share in public?
For reasons I can’t quite nail down yet, I felt compelled recently to share one such episode from my life. And, lo and behold, the world did not implode. It kept spinning, and I kept going, and very few people seemed surprised in the least. Some showed support. Some looked at their feet, not knowing how to take it. Some smiled, knowingly — perhaps having tasted, themselves, some of the story I had to share.
So, with the world still spinning, I thought I would share again this short episode — of the night I came closest to killing myself, and of the simple encounter that made me take a different course.
It was 12 years ago, during my 10th reunion visit to Annapolis, Md., and the US Naval Academy.
I’d come home from the opening phase of the war in Iraq five years earlier, and I’d been medically retired from the Navy for two years. I was writing for the Fairview Republican, a weekly paper in Major County, Okla., and to outsiders I was a well-adjusted, competent and even happy 33-year-old. But, inside, everything was a wreck.
My first marriage had long-since struck the rocks, and by this time had drifted into shark-infested waters, capsized, burned and sank — very, very slowly. I was grieving at least as much the loss of my career in the Navy, which stripped me of what I had built up as my identity, and left me feeling alone, naked and meaningless. And, worst of all, I suffered constant shame, anger, grief and what can only be described as a deep, persistent darkness, over having helped kill a significant number of people who had no need of killing.
I was in a very dark place.
As I prepared for the reunion trip to Annapolis I hoped in some naive way it would wash away all that darkness. Perhaps being among old friends, in that old, familiar place, I would go back to the care-free nights of senior year at the boat school — days when everything seemed possible, when virtue wasn’t tainted by the realities of war, and the biggest concern of any given night was making the drunken walk past the gate guard and back into our company area before liberty expired.
But, the cobble-stoned streets of Annapolis didn’t have the old magic. Everything seemed dull and empty. And my classmates, well, they were all like me — forever changed by life, and by war, and only able to hold onto the levity of younger days for short periods of time.
When that time ran out, I found myself walking alone in the rain, long past last-call.
Before long, I found myself contemplating suicide. This was not a shock, or surprise — no more than the sun setting, or a politician lying. Every day since I returned from the war, and for 10 more years after this episode, each day included at least the consideration of ending my own life. But, this particular night it wasn’t an abstract thought. Walking alone, drunk, in the rain, it suddenly became plausible and present.
So, I sat down on a city bench to contemplate where would be the best spot to drown myself on the Annapolis waterfront, and what I might use to weigh myself down. It seemed an appropriate death, at the time.
I was so deeply involved in these logistical concerns, I didn’t even notice him sit down next to me.
A homeless man. Disheveled. Stinking — even in the rain. With no jacket, no socks and ratty shoes. Hair matted into dreadlocks and long, dirty fingernails.
He sat there for a good minute, which seemed much longer. Then, without any introduction, he turned, stared directly into my face, and asked a simple, but profound question: “You alright, brother?”
I didn’t have the energy for the old lie. No, I was not alright. He nodded, knowingly. And then he talked. About the weather. His younger days. His lack of socks. A dog he once had. And before long, I was talking back, about equally meaningless topics.
The words were meaningless. But the mere speaking of them wasn’t. Being in his presence, just sitting with someone in that short span of time, changed my course. A few warm words. The firm, compassionate handshake of a man who had nothing. The presence of another human, when I felt lost and empty. It was enough — at least, for that night.
I came back the next day, but never again found that man. I will never know his name. I’ll never be able to tell him I got help, and am doing much better now. But, in that brief span of time, that man who had nothing — who was seen as nothing by our society — gave me more than could ever be bought. He gave me a presence — the kind of presence that lets you sink your fingernails back into life. And, for that night, that was enough.
All of this isn’t really about me. And, it’s not just about my comrades who also came back, busted up and broken inside, with wounds no-one would ever see. I wanted to write this as a reminder of two things: 1) There is absolutely nothing wrong with getting help; and 2) You never know what kind of impact you’re going to have in someone’s life, simply by being present, and compassionate, and human — even if for only a few minutes.
If you struggle with mental health issues, or ever find yourself in that dark place, please get help. No-one will judge you. And if they do, their judgment isn’t worth a damn. Free help is always available from the national suicide prevention lifeline, at 1-800-273-TALK.
And, if you come across someone, even a complete stranger, who has that darkness about them, do not be afraid to be a compassionate presence, even if only for a few minutes. Be compassionate. Be present. And love. It’s a free gift, and it may just be the greatest gift of all.