It’s been a long while since I’ve specifically talked about why Frank and I live the vagabond lifestyle today. I had a recent conversation with someone though, and felt it might be good to talk about it. Besides, I’ve been tagging my blog posts with phrases like “depression”, “anxiety”, “PTSD”, and the like. And continue to do so despite the fact that a lot of recent posts either don’t address those subjects anymore or only address them in passing.
I’ve pictured some people who come to the blog via one of those particular tags and start thinking, “What the hell?”
Sure, they could go to the original “About” page and learn about the symptoms I had when I started this blog, and some of what was going on back then. But unless they were to go back and read through earlier posts, there hasn’t been much here lately to directly address those subjects.
I have been a long time sufferer from what was diagnosed as complex-PTSD, the result of more than a decade of horrible physical and mental abuse as a child. The primary symptoms I experienced were depression and anxiety. They manifested themselves in many ways, such as: low self-esteem; overeating; an inability to open up and trust others, especially in relationships; a belief that I was an imposter at work, combined with a fear of failure; OCD things, like having to go back and check lights to make sure they were turned off (sometimes locking and unlocking my office door as many as 10 times before I could leave); the need for the more than occasional thrill, whether it was speeding, unnecessary risk taking, or cocaine abuse; nightmares and night-time sweats; and suicide ideation. It’s not an exaggeration to say that I probably spent 4-5 years where I woke up every day wondering if that was the day I was going to “do it”.
The one symptom that I’d like to address, though, is guilt. It’s not one of the things you necessarily think about when it comes to PTSD, but if you’re like me, it manifests itself in a significant way.
I’ve spent a good portion of my life feeling overwhelming guilt. I think it comes about because when you’re abused as a kid, you tend to think of it as being your fault. I know I did. I’m a pretty smart guy, and I was a pretty smart kid, too. So when one gets beaten for something they did, you would think the intelligent thing to do when facing the same situation again, is to do exactly the opposite, right? Well, that’s what I’d do. The problem though, was that it didn’t work!
Here’s a tiny example. You start getting yelled at, so you try to explain yourself. What happens? You get beaten for talking back. So the next time you’re getting yelled at, you logically think that the best thing to do is to keep your mouth shut. Only this time, you get hit because you were supposed to reply.
If that happens enough times, it can pull a real mind fuck on you! After a while, when you start feeling like it doesn’t matter what you do. You start to believe that it’s your fault. You shut down. And when there is no positive reinforcement to counter the negative, you begin to feel worthless.
It’s one thing to feel that as a kid, but it reinforces the same thinking as an adult, with dire results. Your first reactions to bad situations are affected. You stay in bad relationships longer than you should. You stay at bad jobs long after other people would quit. You question your own decisions constantly. And you live under constant stress because whenever something goes wrong, your first reaction is to feel responsible. Whether you are or not!
That’s not to say I don’t have things I’ve done for which I should feel guilt or responsibility. Everybody does. But when you feel that way about everything, it’s hard to separate out the justifiable ones from the noise. And you carry the burden with you much longer than you should, justified or not.
Anyhow, guilt was probably the hardest thing for me to overcome. It was certainly the last major symptom I had to deal with to get to where I’m at today.
It was something I used to talk about a lot with my buddy Larry. He would do his damnedest to get me to see that I needed to let go of things. And that was regardless of whether the “thing” was or wasn’t my fault, or perhaps was only partially my responsibility. And I spent the vast majority of those conversations arguing against myself.
We were in another of those discussions early last spring. It was about something that is very personal to me. When I started the blog. I made the decision that I wouldn’t talk about it. Maybe someday, but not now. But it’s something for which I have felt almost unbearable guilt for a long time. I’ll just say it involves a family relationship with an extremely bad outcome, and leave it at that.
For whatever reason, Larry took a different tact during this particular conversation.
“Okay. Let’s say that it’s your responsibility. What type of sentence do you want to give yourself?” I didn’t understand what he meant, so he went on.
“People commit crimes, they get sentenced to jail. But when a court hands down a sentence, that’s it. They serve their time and are then released. They are considered to have ‘served their debt to society’.
Sometimes they get out early for good behavior, sometimes they’re placed on parole. But there’s an end to it. It doesn’t change what they did. It doesn’t change the past. But they get to move on with their life. Their life changes as a result of what happened, obviously. But they get to move on the best that they can.
Now I know that you believe in justice, Jeff. You care about people not being treated harshly. You believe In fairness. You’ve been the judge, jury, and prosecutor here. So what type of sentence do you want to give yourself? Be fair now. And after that, are you willing to accept that once it’s over, you can let yourself out of the prison that you’ve put yourself in?”
You know, that reached me! For the first time in my adult life, I had something to consider that took the emphasis away from guilt and put it on something else. I don’t remember what I said to Larry at that point, except that I would consider what he said. But this was a way I hadn’t looked at things before and I needed to think about it more.
That little talk occupied my thoughts for at least the next couple of weeks. To be honest, a part of me did everything it could to tear that argument apart. But it couldn’t. The simple fact is that it just made sense no matter how I looked at.
It no longer mattered whether I was guilty or not. My conscience was the jury and had already convicted me. Whether it was fair … or not … was also no longer an issue. The verdict had been rendered and was in. But now, the Court was back in session – this time to deliberate on the sentence.
How much longer was I going to hold myself in jail? My self-imposed guilt had lasted for almost 20 years. Murderers had been released in less time! So with that in mind, the Court came to a decision. The sentence would be … time served.
Nothing really changed. Like I said before, the past is the past. What happened, happened. But in the mind of “the Court”, I could now go on. I’m still living the consequences of my sentence, of course. While I was in “jail”, I lost a relationship that meant the world to me. I lost a job. And all of the property and material things I had accumulated were gone.
But I was free to move on. And make the best out of the life I have remaining.
The conversation stayed with me. Over the next couple of months, I thought about it less and less. But it was definitely still in the back of my mind as I went on and made plans for the rest of 2016.
In late May, Frank and I were camped next to a river in Lancaster, PA. Since that conversation with Larry and the ensuing two weeks, we had gone through a whirlwind of activity. We had travelled from Texas to California and back, picking up the Nutshell. Spent a month visiting friends in Dallas. Gone up to Colorado to see more friends and then back across more than half the country to Lancaster. And it was the first time in a long while where we really had time to stop and relax.
Anyhow, I was up early doing my morning meditation and prayer as usual. I typically get up before dawn. I like to watch the beginnings of the day – how the world gradually comes alive as the sun rises. And sitting there looking at that slowly flowing river as first light appeared, I realized that I was at peace. Letting it sink in for a while, it “dawned” on me that I hadn’t felt that way in my entire adult life. But there was no mistaking it. I felt totally at peace.
The thought then came about how I almost served a death sentence. How I was ready to do myself in before starting out a year earlier. Hell, I was still looking at eventual suicide as the likely outcome when I drove away from Charleston in May 2015. But that expectation had totally left me now. And I broke down in tears.
In the year that’s gone by since that morning, I can honestly say that peace has never left me. Sure there have been some things I’ve had to deal with that have caused anxiety. But the anxiety has been event-specific, and that sense of peace has remained throughout … as each of those anxiety-provoking things were handled, the peace returned.
At the beginning of this post, I mentioned that I had a conversation that spurred me to write about this. When I was at the Tearjerkers event at First Landing State Park the weekend after Easter, I met a fellow named Kenny. He had arrived in a 50 year old camper that he had restored and stopped by to visit a few times over the weekend.
Kenny is a substance abuse counselor at a VA Hospital in West Virginia. He had shared a little about his life before embarking on that career, and how it had helped him in dealing with some of the vets he was now working with. And for whatever reason, I felt moved to share my “courtroom” story with him.
It moved Kenny, too. He said it was something he had never heard put quite that way, and that he knew of guys he’d seen who would definitely benefit from that perspective. He then said that if I didn’t mind, he wanted to borrow it to use in his counseling. He even said he intended to share it with other counselors, he liked it so much!
Of course I told him that he was free to use it! After all, it wasn’t mine to begin with, that it came from a friend. Kenny, if you happen to be reading this, I hope that the analogy has been put to good use since we last saw each other a few weeks ago.
Some people believe that you’re here on Earth for one particular purpose. I remember seeing a friend in Dallas last April. I had worked for her husband at a gas station while in high school. She said something along those lines to me one morning when Frank and I were visiting their home … that I had been kept from suicide because I hadn’t yet done what God had put me on Earth to do.
I don’t know that I believe that. That we’re here for a specific purpose, other than just working out our individual lives. But if that’s the case, a part of me would like to think that my purpose was served by giving Kenny something that he and his fellow counselors will put to good use helping others. Finding peace is something that everybody should do!
Frank and I head out tomorrow to Pennsylvania. I should put the following in a macro, so I don’t have to keep typing it : “it’s hard to believe it’s already time for us to leave this place.”
Bad weather’s kept us from doing all the sightseeing we wanted to while staying in Williamsburg. We did get to drive down to Jamestown and to Yorktown, but didn’t get to do a lot of exploring because of the rain. Nevertheless, we had a great time here. On to Pennsylvania!