One fall night, in Tuscaloosa, Alabama I decided to take acid. The Crimson Tide had lost to Houston that day but I didn’t care. I was in a bad relationship. We had reached that point where you secretly hope unpleasant things happen to each other. And since she attended the University of Alabama and wanted them to win, I was perfectly fine with the football team losing.
I don’t know who gave me the acid, and the idea that a sentence like that belongs in my mouth is ridiculous. I never drank in high school. I looked at pot as a hardcore drug, but that year all my definitions of right and wrong changed. So I found myself in someone’s kitchen letting a stranger squirt drops of liquid acid under my tongue.
All I remember is that he said, “uh uh, that was too much” and then most of the night disappeared. People lost their shapes. I started to see everyone not as friends, but rather strands of pixilated colors. Have you ever put your face really close to a television and seen the way the green and red dots make up the picture? That is how everyone looked, stripped of everything that defined them as an individual. I heard someone describe the human body as a container once and I thought that was really interesting. In this moment though, the containers were gone and that is exactly how I wanted it.
I was lonely and sad and in a relationship that was broken beyond repair. I felt stuck, trapped, forced into a corner and a life I didn’t want. I wanted a new container. I was tired of mine and nothing seemed to change it. Creatine and exercise and resolutions and studying harder didn’t work. Church didn’t work. Small groups weren’t working. So I threw drugs at my container and for 12 hours it was gone.
But then the morning came. It always comes. As a child I used to comfort myself in our coastal New England town by listening for birds. If they were singing, it didn’t matter if it was still dark outside, morning was coming to rescue me. But this felt more like an assault, the beams of sunshine streaming through the windows like swat members on bright ropes.
And so I did what I did most mornings, I walked to the full length mirror in Tutweiler Hall and looked in. I wiped my eyes with dirty hands and stared at myself, but I wasn’t there. I know now that it was the drugs still lazily stumbling in my veins, but what I saw terrified me.
My face was different. My skin was pulling tight, like too small sheets being tucked into the corner of a big bed. My muscles were straining, any fat in my face fading as the bones beneath began to swell. My face changed in that moment, as my skull seemed to surface like a submarine from the depths of myself. Hollow eyes stared at me.
In that moment, I knew that I would never escape the things inside me. I would never be free of them. I could use drugs or sex or will power or hope or anything in the world and it wouldn’t matter. It all might change the surface of who I was but deep down, in the dark corners that people would flee if they knew existed, was stuff I just couldn’t shake.
That all feels very emo. Like maybe I should have darker hair and paler skin and more black on when I read those words. And instead of Jon, my name should be October Black, and I should have a band with one guy whose hair kind of looks like Flock of Seagulls but it’s cool cause it’s done ironically. But Jenny won’t let me wear eyeliner or black nail polish so you’ll just have to use your imagination.
The funny thing though is that this concept, the idea of trying to get away from what’s inside, is laid out in the Bible better than any emo lyric:
Check out Isaiah 30:
15 This is what the Sovereign LORD, the Holy One of Israel, says:
"In repentance and rest is your salvation,
in quietness and trust is your strength,
but you would have none of it.
16 You said, 'No, we will flee on horses.'
Therefore you will flee!
You said, 'We will ride off on swift horses.'
Therefore your pursuers will be swift!
17 A thousand will flee
at the threat of one;
at the threat of five
you will all flee away,
till you are left
like a flagstaff on a mountaintop,
like a banner on a hill."
I love that imagery. The idea that the things we turn to in times of need are horses. That when pushed, we saddle up and try to ride off into the sunset. I don’t know about you but my stable is bursting.
Drugs was one of my horses. But it’s not the one I’ve ridden the most over the years. I have too many to count, but I can think of a few without really trying:
I can mentally create the most elaborate hiding places when I’m bored or frustrated with any aspect of my “real life.” Usually I play college basketball. Always I am taller. That’s something I think about a lot. I wish I was a little bit taller.
I wish I was a baller
I wish I had a girl who looked good
I would call her
I wish I had a rabbit in a hat with a bat
and a 'six four Impala
I love worrying about silly stuff when there’s real stuff staring at me in the face. I lost 30 pounds, woke up in cold sweats daily and ended up going on Paxil temporarily in the months leading up to my marriage. But I told everyone, including myself, that I wasn’t nervous about the marriage, I was nervous about the Guided Tour project at work. A job that went out of business about an hour after we got home from the honeymoon by the way, which in-laws love.
Have you ever asked someone else to define or validate you? Maybe not with those words but your actions scream “tell me I’m good enough.” I remember once having a Celtics game ruined because on the way there with my dad someone in another car had flipped us off. I spent the entire game wrestling with the thought, “why didn’t that guy like me? How can I get him to like me?”
I used to call the shower “my compression chamber” because inside there was nothing to distract me. I had already read all the shampoo bottles. It was just me and the water. That’s when thoughts I was trying to flee chased me down. That’s when my horse of being too busy caught up with me. And I hated it.
It all made me so anxious. I think I’m probably a tightly wound person. I seem to spin like a top and have on many, many times been told “it must be exhausting to be you.” And it is sometimes, because I think God’s right. When you’re on the run, the sight of one can make a thousand flee. Something small can feel big.
I swear, most Fridays, even though things are going so much better, I leave work thinking, “I’ll probably be fired on Monday.” If my boss closes a door during a meeting she is having without me I immediately assume it is to discuss with security which is the best way to escort me from the building. That’s silly, but from the back of a horse things are out of proportion.
So where does that leave me? Where does that leave you? Tomorrow, when something comes up, how do you not put on those weird horse riding pants and just go?
Here is how the verse continues:
18 Yet the LORD longs to be gracious to you;
he rises to show you compassion.
For the LORD is a God of justice.
Blessed are all who wait for him!
There’s a handful of really beautiful words in there, but since I’ve written about those lines before I’ll only mention one. “He rises to show you compassion.” There are a lot of things in my life that I’m motivated by, but I don’t know any that I rise for. I love to write, but most days I don’t rise for it. I want to beat my friend in a half marathon this year, but I don’t rise to train. Of all the things I do, I can’t name one that I rise for, and yet, that is what he does. It is why he gets up. But the verses don’t stop there:
19 O people of Zion, who live in Jerusalem, you will weep no more. How gracious he will be when you cry for help! As soon as he hears, he will answer you. 20 Although the Lord gives you the bread of adversity and the water of affliction, your teachers will be hidden no more; with your own eyes you will see them. 21 Whether you turn to the right or to the left, your ears will hear a voice behind you, saying, "This is the way; walk in it." 22 Then you will defile your idols overlaid with silver and your images covered with gold; you will throw them away.
Ohh, I could talk about that for hours, but there’s only really one thing in there we have time or space for. And that’s the idea of sequence. Something my father and I learned about one day with a chainsaw.
To be continued tomorrow.