Old Friends, Survivor’s Guilt and Surviving

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I grabbed the jersey display case from its perch on the bookcase in the den. I tucked it under my arm as I walked through the house and out the door. When I got to the middle of the driveway, I took it in both hands, raised it above my head and threw it down at my feet as hard as I could throw it. Glass exploded and flew in every direction as the crash echoed through the neighborhood. Perfectly fabricated wood joints shattered and seemed to chase the glass. As the echoing subsided, the pieces came to rest in different parts of the driveway, while the jersey laid crumpled at my feet. I stood in the driveway in the middle of it all with my hands on my hips, cursing the wreckage, fuming over the death of a friend a year and a half earlier. And I felt enraged by what I saw as the absolute futility of life. I called out God, Higher Powers and every other spirit I’d ever heard of for their collective inaction. I cursed the Universe. I begged them all for a sign or a signal, and I dared them all to give me their best shot. Oddly enough, the fact that there was no response from anywhere in the living world nor the world beyond only served to fuel the rage that had finally come out. “F*** YOU,” I said, pointing down at the mess at my feet, “AND F*** YOU, TOO,” I said, raising my arms to notify the rest of the world. It was at that moment that I had in fact, had it.

This was the culmination of over a year and a half of seething, festering guilt and frustration, over acting “as-if” and of playing the part. It was pretending to make temporary sense of a permanent loss. I tried to act as if, I tried to go along and get along. I tried to pretend all was well and that what I was really feeling was sadness, and it was a natural part of the process of grief, especially when someone young dies unexpectedly. But the truth was that I wasn’t sad. I was sick of getting along, and I was tired of acting as if. I was angry because Dave’s passing devasted his family. I saw the faces of his old friends and neighbors at the funeral. I was angry because I remember calling Jimmy to give him the news, and I remember his reaction. I was angry because the three of us finally had stuff figured out, together, and now it was gone. I was angry because he had his whole life ahead of him. I was angry because he didn’t reach out and I was angry because I didn’t do enough to stop it. I was angry because the three of us had come so far. And that day, in one feeble, violent, misguided moment, I took it out on a carefully crafted display case which held an old jersey in memory of my friend. Now that was ruined, too.

To know Jimmy and Dave was to know life itself. They both had tons of friends growing up, they were charismatic, they were popular and they were each blessed with a great sense of humor. They were both talented athletes. Jimmy was built like a linebacker, a position he played with an enviable efficiency. He had a square jaw and a smile that could make you feel both at ease and yet still wonder what he had just gotten away with. Dave was a quick, smaller bundle of energy, an energy that you could actually feel. He and I had our lockers next door throughout school because of our last names. He had an infectious laugh and was a walking, talking social event. His family owned the bakery in town and I will never forget the beautiful sights, smells and tastes we were blessed with on a regular basis from that magical little place. The two of them were a memorable part of the cast of characters in our small hometown.

We were always teammates and classmates, although it seems that the three of us were never really all that close back then. After graduation, and the school years which contained both highlights and scrapes with authority, along with the prerequisite growing pains, we each went our own directions out into the world. One of us would enter and exit the military, one of us would scale water towers, and one of us would fail miserably at two colleges, before reuniting in our small town, to begin rebuilding our lives.

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I literally ran into Jimmy not quite ten years later at the bank in town. I was begrudgingly going to the Alcoholics Anonymous meeting in the basement that night at the urging of my family, when I swung open the door and ran into my old friend, who was on his way to his car. Jimmy had been in recovery for a year and had a good job with a big construction outfit in the area. We spent some time after the meeting catching up and after some convincing, I agreed to go to meetings regularly. He became my mentor and my babysitter. The drinking hobbies we began in high school as “boys will be boys” -type behavior had become full blown addictions in almost no time, only to somehow lead us back home to try to sort it all out. After the reunion that night, we were pretty much inseparable, and it seemed we had almost come full circle.

A few months after our meeting in the doorway of the bank in town, Jimmy and I received word that Dave was back in the area, too. He had run into some trouble, and we went to visit him to see how we could help. Then there were three.

We began working on clearing the wreckage of the past and getting busy with the work of getting our lives back a little at a time. We were sober, clean, recovering and kicking all kinds of ass at it. Meetings, conferences, more meetings, making amends, helping others, sharing our stories at schools in the area. We even returned to the church we had spent so much time in growing up, which we thought to be kind of poetic. We talked about the glory days of football and basketball. We talked about college and owning businesses and houses and whatever else came to mind. We had dreams again and we weren’t shackled to our addictions, waiting to die. We were alive. We held each other up, we held each other accountable and we walked through it all together. You didn’t miss a meeting or someone would be there, banging on your door. You answered your phone even if you were busy or didn’t feel like it, because it was what you were supposed to do when someone reached out. If one of us had a court date, we all had a court date. We high-fived and trashed talked each other. We were at once humbled by what we had survived and confident and proud of our new lease on life. We were, in so many ways, back.

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But as time wore on in our new lives, maybe we started to become complacent. Maybe we took some things for granted. Maybe there were some underlying things we didn’t or couldn’t fix within us or between us. I’ve never been completely sure, and that’s always been part of my problem with the whole thing. Maybe the high fives weren’t shared as often. Maybe the conferences, meetings and speaking opportunities became easier to brush off in favor of new things. Or old things. Maybe we stopped being grateful. Maybe we stopped telling each other the truth. But in the middle of it all, we had lost our way, and I didn’t know exactly how much until we couldn’t get ahold of Dave.

Jimmy didn’t seem too bothered by not being able to get in touch with Dave, at first. There were all kinds of possible reasons, and they didn’t have to be bad ones, he thought. I was frustrated, but in the end, we both figured he’d come around. There had been a few things that had happened recently that may have accounted for it. Maybe he got a job. Maybe he was pissed at us. Maybe he was burnt out on recovery and the pace at which we were going. We decided, fatefully, to give him space. For two weeks we went on with life – work, meetings, family- waiting for him to come back to the fold.

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The alarm went off that Friday just like it did every other morning, the beep-beep-beep pulling me out of slumber to be replaced by a clicking sound and the local radio news morning update. I sat up in the dark, eyes still shut, when I heard, “A one car crash over night leaves…. County Road A….David…..”

I rubbed my eyes and yawned and I had to rewind and play again in my head what I thought I had just heard. Confused and still half awake, I grabbed the radio and tried to tune in other stations on the chance that I might hear it again, but I got nothing. Turning the radio off, I called work and told them that I wouldn’t be in, that a friend had been in an accident. I dressed on the way to the door and put my shoes on as I hopped down the sidewalk toward the car. It can’t be, I thought.

I drove and thought. Thought and drove. My mind raced and feared the worst, and then a wave of reassurance due to being half asleep and the belief that I simply had not heard it correctly. But I still felt I had to drive down there and check. It couldn’t be. The farther I drove and the closer I was to the approaching town, the better I felt. Stupid dream.

Then, rounding the last curve in the road on County A, the last corner before town, I saw the tire tracks. I saw the car. I saw the police cars. I saw the tape. I saw the tow truck parked off to the side. I pulled over and got out. I leaned up against the car with my arms folded. I didn’t know what else to do. After some time, an older deputy approached me. We talked for a few minutes about what details he could give, he shared his condolences and went back to work. It was surreal. It was bullshit. It was over. On the way back to town, I wondered what his family must have been going through at that moment. I wondered how they were ever going to make it through the loss of a son and brother. I wondered how Jimmy would take it, and I wondered how I was going to tell him. And I wondered why. Then there were two.

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We were never the same after Dave’s passing. Jimmy couldn’t even bring himself to go to the funeral and I went mostly because I couldn’t bring myself to not go. We talked a lot, Jimmy and I, but it was never the real, teammate, crunch-time, got-your-back, kind of stuff that we had grown accustomed to. There was no banging on the door if one of us missed a meeting. There was no car in the driveway if we didn’t answer the phone. Little by little, Dave’s passing, and our assumed responsibility for not preventing it, slowly pulled us into the swamp of relapse. Eventually we just stopped calling and contacting each other because we each believed we were a little more at fault than the other for what had happened somehow. We carried the burden as quietly as we could for as long as we could.

While I don’t believe Jimmy ever touched another drink, I know that he fought demons that rarely let him rest. For my part, I stayed clean for another eight or nine months before I went back to using, and only a few months after that came the day I spiked the case on the driveway and challenged the world to a fist fight.

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It was twelve years after Dave passed, that I learned Jimmy had died suddenly. That was in 2006. Over that twelve-year span, I had to work to recover from addiction and fight mental health issues, and to deal with the memory hoarder’s paradise that is survivor’s guilt. Counselors, therapists, other addicts, family, friends, enemies -you name it- I had help. It wasn’t an exercise in valor or the yearning for a higher level of existence, it was an exercise in survival. And then there was one.

It was during the time of my Dad’s passing, in between Dave’s and Jimmy’s, that a pastor put a hand on my shoulder and suggested that maybe the best we can do is take them with us on our journey until we meet again. I’ve never forgotten that, and that little act of kindness and empathy forged a gigantic shift in my view and perspective on the finite of life, and the infinite universe, but that’s a story for another time.

That shift, that little spark, was part of a lengthy process moving from fixating on something I could never change and riding it to hell and back, to coming to the belief that there is a different way. Who wins a war with the Universe? Who calls out spirits and challenges a God or gods he isn’t even sure he believes are real? Who seeks closure through rage? I did, and it didn’t work. When you get your ass kicked that badly, sometimes it’s best to accept it and regroup. There is no science to it, and it may not even make sense. All I know is that it seems to work day to day, and I am not imprisoned by guilt anymore about something I could never control in the first place.

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Today, I am where I am in no small part because of Dave and Jimmy. And although I don’t carry the baggage I used to, I love them like brothers. I am grateful for the time we got to spend together, even in the eye of the storm. There is no doubt that they helped people achieve lasting recovery while they were here, and I owe it to them to keep walking, come what may. Without our paths crossing back then, I’m sure there would have been an early end to my own story.

Today, I use the suggestion I received and I take them with me, and we get to do the things said we would. After I’d been in recovery for quite a few years, I went back and finished school and earned a counseling degree. Behind the curtain that graduation night, I met with Dave and Jimmy. We made it, gentlemen. Each time I reach another year in recovery from addiction, I call on them. We made It, Fellas. Before playing football for the first time in twenty-one years, I walked over to the corner of the end zone during pregame and met with Dave, Jimmy and Dad. We made it, gentlemen. When our granddaughters were born, I made it, Guys… When it’s quiet and there is that fleeting moment of clarity and peace, however brief, that we once worked together for…. We made it, gentlemen.

And it isn’t just them. Others who have passed, I’ve learned to take along the best I can. That is something I carry without fatigue. I am still part of this world, don’t get me wrong. But I am grateful today to be able to do it until we meet again, however and wherever that is. That is of course, if God or the spirits don’t hold grudges and if the Universe isn’t sore for my tantrum in the driveway all those years ago.

We made it, gentlemen.

In memory of

Dave Mickelson

and

Jim Torpen