7. The Communion

I told her I thought about killing myself. Then she had to tell Mom. Mom came unglued, so I didn't talk about it again for almost 30 years.

I was 13 years old the first time I got drunk for the same reasons I continued to get drunk for decades to come.

It went like this: I craved approval because I wanted to prove to the world (but mostly Dad) that I wasn’t a mistake after all.

To do that, I had to be perfect in everything, which meant creating such unattainable expectations of myself that not only did I set myself up to fail, in some situations I made it impossible for me to act at all.

Which led to depression and drinking in a futile effort to stop feeling so low.

The depression and drinking put me in a state of stagnation, unable to move forward in life, which led to my feeling even more depressed.

I was so depressed that I thought about killing myself, which scared me so much I drank even more. 

I slept a lot.

Sometimes because I was so tired.

Sometimes because I’d sneak some chugs from Dad’s old stash of bottles in the basement. And sometimes because it was just something else that I did to avoid the real world.

Every day I’d dig my hole a little deeper until there wasn’t any light.

Everything that I looked at, everyone that should have meant something, the motions that I went through every day, had no meaning.

I didn’t care. At. All.

Glimpses of what it would feel like to not have to deal with any of it crept into my daydreams.

It was a source of hope; I could just end it. I had that power.

close up of blurry lights with figure of a human in the background

To make things worse, no one understood what was happening with me.

Dad chalked up my behavior to hateful, teenage antics; if I stayed over at his house and slept too late, he guilt-tripped an apology.

Then, Mom dragged me to a therapist whose face was hidden behind a clipboard with her empathy.

I told her I thought about killing myself.

Then she had to tell Mom.

Mom came unglued, so I didn’t talk about it again for almost 30 years.

That was around the time I discovered long-distance running.

Later in the same week that Mom found out I was suicidal, we got in a fight.

I don’t remember what started it, but I do know we were in the kitchen and I was screaming, inconsolable like I always was.

Something told me to put on my running shoes, and when I left the house, I just kept going.

The more deeply I breathed, the more the angst disappeared.

I started to connect to the world around me through the edge of my physical ability to run.

Before long, I was weightless, almost being-less, and more alive than alive all at the same time. 

I’d run eight miles when I returned to give Mom a hug. All was forgotten. 

close up of blurry lights with figure of a human in the background

I ran most days until summer break started a few months later.

It was July, and I was getting ready to leave for my annual RV trip to Busch Gardens Williamsburg, my favorite amusement park, with my best friend and her family.

But first, Mom and I had to drop my oldest sister off at Pop-Pop and Mom-Mom’s house, so I ran into the house for a quick hello and goodbye, rushing to get to the roller coasters when Pop-Pop motioned for me to go into the back hallway. 

Rolling my eyes, I dragged myself to the door of Pop-Pop’s den, its white paint shining like frozen snow above the shadow of each panel as if 3D wasn’t enough to hold it in place.

I stood in front of it, waiting for it to move, following it with my eyes as I turned around to where Pop-Pop would be, but he wasn’t there.

Instead, the orange and yellow flowers from the wallpaper, separating themselves from their creamy background, hovered closer and closer to me on either side before melting away like Dali’s clocks.

Then the walls and ceiling turned to mist and left the hallway until there wasn’t a hallway at all.

My breathing slowed and I lost feeling in my arms before the tingling moved through my legs. The floor that used to feel like it was made of smooth sandpaper on concrete, turned into a cloud of nothingness.

Before long, I was weightless, almost being-less, and more alive than alive all at the same time.

My entire life up until that moment was wrapped up in that moment, like a bigger something, a bigger everything, tied it in a knot so I could see it all at once.

Pop-Pop walked toward me.

Something was surrounding him.

I couldn’t make it out at first because of how bright it was.

He stopped moving, and I saw glitter filling the air around us.

Piles of it floating, taking up all of the space that we weren’t.

close up of blurry lights with figure of a human in the background

It was white, but not white like I’d ever seen.

It was alive like diamonds in the sun.

It was there and nothing else was, but it didn’t bother me because it brought a calmness that I’d never felt before then. 

When Pop-Pop spoke, the glitter made me focus on everything that he was saying like I had no choice but to listen, because nothing else at all existed in the entire world in that moment, suspended in time, just us and the glitter.

“This isn’t all there is,” he said. 

“What isn’t, Pop-Pop?” 

“All of this,” he said, throwing his arms up and around.

“Don’t let anyone put your spirit in a box. You have to get out there, find it and fill it yourself. Okay? Promise.” 

“I promise.” I said, desperate for any advice that might save me from the depression that choked me. 

That was the last conversation we had. 

close up of blurry lights with figure of a human in the background

Pop-Pop had been the one man who gave me his approval.

With him gone from this world my depression took over.

Whenever I was in that dispirited state, I ruminated, awake and asleep, about what could have been if he was still there.

I worried about what my future would be without him to guide me, the thoughts carving ravines into my mind, ravines I fell into, unable to pull myself out.

I was stuck in my head, lost without him, a passive rider on an aimless life; no matter how many Sundays I went to mass, God was a stranger.

It was Ash Wednesday, and I was 16.

I felt like an imposter in church. The nun wasn’t helping. She was handing out a three-page pamphlet on sins for which I should repent.

As I read it, my stomach seized, and that was when I heard it for the first time.

Well, I didn’t hear it in the usual sense; it was like I could hear a feeling, a knowing, deep in my stomach.

And it wasn’t like a disembodied voice, nor was it someone else’s voice.

It was my own voice, but it was wise and confident. I didn’t hear exactly what it was saying, but the essence of it was clear:

This is what Pop-Pop was talking about. They’re limiting your experience, making you feel shameful for everything short of breathing.

With that, I got up in the middle of mass and threw my pamphlet in the trash on my way out the door.

I didn’t go back.

I got rid of the box that my religion put me in, but I still couldn’t see the one I was building around myself.

After I left church that day, the cycle hijacked the next five years of my life: Need for approval, perfectionist thinking, inaction, depression, drinking, stagnation, increased depression, suicidal thoughts, more drinking.

I was on a merry-go-round of boyfriends, jobs, and bars.

Luckily, I was smart enough to hold onto the only thing that kept me alive – running.

And I ran a lot.

Running cleared the static of the world.

I started to hear the wise, confident little voice inside of me more clearly; without it, there was only the giant shame.

One day in the summer of 1999, I was sitting at work writing a paper for college English during my downtime, and the voice was so loud that I couldn’t ignore it telling me what to do next.

So, I called the Navy recruiter, and everything changed.

Just about the only thing that shook my universe out of harmony after making that phone call was Sullivan, my Recruit Division Commander at boot camp, screaming at me as I lay in a pool of my own sweat on the verge of tears from exhaustion,

“Now get in the shower and scrub the civilian from your skin, because you’re never going back!”