The cold trigger curved around my finger….hammer cocked….a bullet anticipating a strike and thrust. The woods smelled of Fall, dry leaves crunched under my legs as I squatted down and leaned against a thick birch tree. I heard rustling sounds, imagining squirrels playfully darting back and forth, birds singing their last song of summer. In just another moment, it would all be silence.
I wasn’t angry or full of dread and self-destructive thoughts. I didn’t hate my life – I just didn’t understand it. I was uncomfortable. I couldn’t explain my thoughts, certainly not my feelings, and I felt I couldn’t control any element of my internal or external life. I was fourteen when I took my father’s pistol, filled with .22 caliber bullets, and headed into the woods. One slight tug of the trigger and although I didn’t comprehend the final, deadly results, I knew, I hoped I would no longer feel uncomfortable, confused, and out of place. The disconnect between my brain and spirit would finally be fused in a state of rest and soft, comfortable understanding.
I was calm, happy even. I smiled.
Finding my body after a frantic search at nightfall would only have raised a thousand questions as no one had a clue to my inner struggle. I was a straight A student, popular with church youth and adults alike, likable to my fellow classmates in school, a talker, a joker. I wore conservative blue jeans and checkered shirts, sensible Buster Brown shoes, nothing about my clothing or accessories flashy or trendy. Just a middle class kid in a middle class town in a middle class state, wishing it would all just go away.
How can you explain to someone else what you cannot understand yourself? How does one express with words an inexpressible feeling, disconnected from anything to do with yourself? It’s a boxing match with elusive shadows. I swing to connect to reason and miss. I step into what I hope will be an answer and whiff through thin air, just as solemn, just as confused, just as alone.
People are amazed to hear popular people feel alone. They say comedians have the most tragic lives and use laughter to cover up their unavoidable pain, standing on stage, night after night, seeking the approval of strangers as internally they lack any confirmation of self- approval. Freddie Prinze famously ate his lunch with a pop to the side of his head, a permanent surrender to the unimaginable frustration that comes with feeling this uncomfortable.
As a kid, I lived alone in my bedroom. I felt alien in my world of church, Jesus, parents and schoolmates. When my high school class gathered for their 50th reunion, I commented on their Facebook page, “I’m sorry I won’t be attending the festivities. You were all such nice people, but I didn’t know any of you. I was trapped in my own world and didn’t get to know you.” One person replied, “You were always a standup guy.”
Another classmate, blonde and bouncy, was also found in the woods later this year, propped against a tree, body decayed over months of exposure. He did not carry a weapon of destruction. He just parked his car, walked into the shadows and sat down like a New Guinea native, willing his heart to stop, his brain to cease and died.
Was I a standup guy? I didn’t know. And I certainly didn’t know it at fourteen with a cocked pistol to my head, sitting that Fall season in the woods, a hundred yards from my house. What would happen if I pulled the trigger? Would I feel anything? Or would it just be sweet relief from this sense of disconnected uncomfortableness?
As an adult, I wrote to my cousin and said I have yet to find peace. Not knowing the meaning of that word in my teens, I would have to say that’s what my uncomfortableness was best describing, the hole created from the absence of peace. Is any teenager at peace with themselves? With the world at large? How can we? How can anyone feel at peace in a world gone crazy?
A quiet Fall afternoon, sitting in the woods, one hundred yards from my house, a cocked pistol to my head and no one would know why I no longer wanted to think, to feel, to live an uncomfortable life I didn’t belong.
Living with your guard up all the time will drive anyone insane. Who can I trust to say what’s on my mind? Who will listen to my ramblings, some with logic and rational argument, others just random feelings of weirdness? Is there a safe place without judgement or discernment?
My guards are well established since birth. One learns at an early age the specific words and actions that will elicit disapproving looks, stern words of correction, and swinging sticks of punishment. From such beginnings, I learned to lie with the expertise of a Ponzi schemer. A disarming smile, blue eyes of innocence, and the reputation as a religious zealot will divert attention from any actions of malfeasance.
“Mr. Walrath,” squealed my mousey, neighbor over the phone to my father. “I heard your son use a swear word on the bus today,” After a pause, I overheard my father say, “I’m sure that wasn’t Steve. Thank you.” And hung up. He turned to me and said, “I know you didn’t swear. No son of mine would swear” and he turned back to his workbench resuming his work.
FUCK YOU!!!!!!! I did swear on the bus. I said the word DAMN! That’s it. That’s all. One forbidden word from the mouth of a small, insignificant human kid. Thats why I lie. No one would intentionally place themselves in harms way, and certainly not this kid!
Guards were built from the scrap metal of outward confidence, self-reliance, protecting us from outside intrusion, interference, and judgement about my life, whatever that life may be. Guards deflected opinions and advice about what was causing my difficulties. Everyone I knew had an answer for my life – except me.
Would a pill relieve my angst? Do I need someone to probe my brain, slap a label on my symptoms, prescribe a dose of what be just another coverup rather than a real solution? Do I need to be diagnosed? For what? And who would know me well enough to suggest what I need to survive? This awkward smile and good natured composure could all fall apart in a blink and everyone would be left shaking their head, “such a tragedy. We never saw it coming. It’s too bad he didnt’ have enough faith.”
As years pass, it all escalates as this uncomfortableness will involve others. Getting older, into our twenties, we not only carry the baggage of our childhood with its expectations and directives – accurate or errant – but now society and our circle of influence begin to weigh heavy with adult concerns.
Are you getting married? That would be the next expectation after dating, yet, I was still harboring guards protecting me from the as yet identified intruders. Again, how can I guard myself when I don’t even know who I am guarding? Am I guarding the real me with the obvious question – who is the real me?!
Only now, I am married. I have a spouse who has expectations of what this relationship is to be and I’m still just surviving day-to-day, wading through jobs, friends, religious affliliations and now someone at home is wondering, “Why are you doing the things you’re doing? This is not the person I married!”
From marriage comes children, its the next expected step. I held my first born child minutes from exiting his enviable womb. I silently thought, “How am I going to do this? How can I possibly care and nurture another when I can’t even figure out myself? Do I abdicate all hope for a self-fulling life, head down, blinders securing my vision as a plow horse surrenders to the acres of fields before him?
A relative observed me holding my son and said I never looked so scared in all my life.
Young. Scared. Married. Parent. Lost.
Its as if life had a mind of its own and I was just holding tight to my orange life preserver, bobbing up and down and up and down in a rolling dark sea, wondering if my feet would ever secure onto solid ground. “Here, try this” I am told. “You need to do that” shouts another. “More of this. More of that. Not enough here. What are you doing there?”
STOP!! I want to get off this merry-go-round of demands and foregone conclusions and try, just ONCE, try to make up my own mind! I can figure this out. Just leave me ALONE!
Oh yeah. I tried that in the past. The response I received was, “Who taught you to think that way? Those aren’t Godly thoughts. Why would you believe that is any way to think? Stop being so selfish. You need to read your Bible more.”
Why won’t anyone just let me talk, vent, express without being surrounded by those who want to medicate, mediate or moderate my thinking? Am I so wrong in my feelings and thoughts that I need to be labeled as anything less than a normal, struggling human being, working my way through daily tasks with hopes I’m doing 10% of what is expected?
Slapping a presumptive label on me only infuriates the frustration I feel and yet, life goes on. Relationships are a wrecked ship on the rocky shores of my uncomfortableness. Don’t ask me what I’m doing. I have no idea.
I need a place where I don’t have to be perfect. But where is that special slice of heaven when I am always with some other goddamn person! My spouse says I read so much to disconnect from the world. They don’t understand that when I am alone, I don’t have to explain myself, except to myself, which was massively frustrating because I didn’t understand myself – or why I felt the way I do or acted the way I acted or made the decisions I made.
The guards are up in full force. How does anyone survive without their guards?
Was there ever a time I felt unguarded? Was there anyone in this world I where I have released and let go? It was a long, long time ago, a youngster, a tike, barely in big-boy underpants. It was on the farm, my grandpa’s farm. An eighty year old loner taking his last lap around life. From my earliest memories, I never had my guard up around him or on those green fields of clover. This person didn’t require guards. I could laugh, sing, dance, play with a baseball or watch television until my heart gave out.
He like being around ME, not for what I did or what I thought or what I said or didn’t say. He just liked being around me. It’s the reason I would bolt out of the car, still rolling slowly down the driveway to the farmhouse and run a half mile through a freshly, plowed field, stumbling over chunks of churned, black earth, to finally, breathlessly, hop up the foothold and onto the tractor he was driving. He would place his weathered arm around my waist, holding me steady as he maneuvered the tractor back and forth, always smiling broadly for the rest of the afternoon.
As Mitch Albom said, “What we miss most about some people are the way they made us feel about ourselves.”
Guards aren’t needed when we are with those who allow us to be ourselves in all our glorious imperfections and crude oddities. Find them. Search them out. Hold them close. They will be your savior during dark days of figuring out this tumultuous life. In their own way, they protect the tiniest spark inside that whispers to your soul, “You’re Okay. You’ll be okay. One step forward. It’ll come to you. I believe in you.” And that tiny spark, gently fanned each time you are in their presence, will sustain you for months and years.
You don’t feel any less confused. Uncomfortable is still ever present. But you feel just a little relaxed knowing someone in this vast universe finds you acceptable. And some days, thats all you need to get through one more cycle of the sun.
Isn’t that the object, to see ourselves as our best selves? And maybe its that one person who voices that acceptance and acknowledgement that our best self is really here all along, it just hasn’t been released to come out and play? We can’t even identify what that best self is or describe what it means to give it breath, but knowing someone else sees its existence may suffice for now until I can see if for myself.
I was fortunate to have the gift of a few short years with my grandpa on the farm who imparted self-value when I didn’t know it myself. If I added up all the time I ever spent with him, it wouldn’t add up to 1% of my total life, yet that self-worth, self-value was so powerful it has stayed with me my entire life.
Later, in my thirties, my cousin sat with me in my garage, a wreck of a human being sitting beside her in the front seat and the only words were, “You’re okay. You’re going to be okay.” And that’s all that was needed to continue the journey of discovery and value. My guard came down for just a moment and a genuine me was recognized and acknowledged.
The guards that surround our life. What are they protecting? The fact you have built them indicates even you know there is something, someone of value inside. Even if not addressed on the conscience level, you know there is someone in there, a thinking, feeling human being. Not always a pretty sight, not always the most competent, but always willing to share an open heart.
A pistol in hand, a warm Fall afternoon.
I put the gun down and slowly rise up.
Walking out of the woods I sense, there is more to come. I don’t know when. I don’t know how. But I am still here.
And that’s enough for today.