At one time, my life was a never-ending hallway, where all I could see was a series of closed doors. There probably were some that were open, but I was so far down that I couldn’t see them—and I’d given up on trying.
I was tired of turning knobs that did not yield, tired of trying to find something, only to find out that that something wasn’t there. I’d had enough. I wanted no more. If there was an end to the hallway, it’d have to come to me, ‘cause I sure as hell wasn’t gonna go any farther. I just wanted to stay put, sprawled out on the floor, unmoving, ungrowing, a piece of living dead surrounded by tightly closed doors.
I was 14 years old the first time I heard the familiar cliché that when one door shuts another opens. I overheard my mother use this phrase when discussing with a friend how I had been awarded the coveted Marjorie A. Tilley Scholarship to The Ellis School, a prestigious all-girls academy in Pittsburgh, PA.
Apparently, my scholastic achievement was the opening of a door. The door that had been shut had been shut four years earlier when my father suffered a massive stroke and aneurysm that left him paralyzed along the entirety of his left side. He was unable to work or be a traditional father from that point on.
It was, I assume, to the former of these inabilities that my mother implicitly referred in her conversation. When my father became handicapped, the bacon that came home had no fat. My family’s financial situation changed for the worse. Going to a school like Ellis would have been out of the question considering our newly low income.
But what was pinched off by one thing was ushered in by another. I learned the meaning of that old chestnut and allowed it to give me a sense of optimism about all things, at least for a few years.
Though I heard the phrase many times over the following years, the next time I heard it that stands out in my mind was a week after my sister died, when I received word that I’d been accepted to the University of Pittsburgh School of Law, among other law schools.
The loss of my sister was the closing of one door, and my acceptance to law school was the opening of another? Are you kidding me?
Yes, one door did close. Yes, one door did open. But the one and the other did not balance out. It wasn’t an even exchange, not by any means.
Use of that damn cliché did not make sense here—it was disturbingly incongruous and more than slightly absurd. Nonetheless, people kept throwing it at me. Oh, how I wanted to throw something back at them! But I didn’t. I held steady and smiled, just like I held steady and smiled at all the pleasantries given me two years prior when my mother died, and, two years later when my father died.
Here, what upset me the most, other than the death of my sister, of course, is that this was the second time in my life that I was deemed to have reaped the benefits of an open door while my loved ones met the misfortune of a door that slammed shut. My academic success popped up twice, when my kin were put in grave circumstances, and, in the instance of my sister, put in the grave.
I didn’t want to be the person who got something at someone else’s expense, like I had made a deal with the devil to get whatever I wanted if I lost something I wanted more. No. I did not like this ad hoc arrangement.
Could I, should I, make a new deal with God? Or maybe Allah? Maybe Re? Perhaps Buddha would give me a sweeter deal?
Feeling like I was losing on the winning end of a sordid transaction to which I’d never consented, my essence was being eaten, and it hurt. I didn’t want to feel the pain. And I didn’t have to, for, you see, I had ample distraction.
When my mother died in 1999, when my sister died in 2001, and when my father died in 2003, I was in the ivory tower, or the large-university equivalent thereof. I observed funeral conventions, cried myself to sleep on more than one occasion, and then hit the books hard.
I excelled in college and in law school. A cum laude graduate in both turns, with a BS in Psychology and a JD, I accumulated awards, accomplishments, and many other A’s during my stint on the Pitt campus. I was published and reprinted; invited to speak at a national conference; mistaken for the homecoming queen; accused of plagiarism because my writing so exceeded expected standards, and later vindicated because my portfolio confirmed my exceptional talent.
So I had a good ride. I had a lot to keep me busy. I buried my grief under a pile of books and paper. I didn’t have to think about the losses I had suffered. I didn’t have to feel. All I had to do was do well in school. And I did… until school ended.
When I graduated law school, I didn’t have a job lined up—which is something most graduates as achieved as I should have had. During my job search, I’d interviewed with approximately 36 different law firms and had not received a single offer. Not one.
Thirty-six law firms! That’s 36 rejections. That’s 36 more doors shut before me in my never-ending hallway.
Did 36 doors open as a result of the 36 that closed? I don’t know. But I know that one did. And, when that one swung open, it knocked me on my ass.
All of a sudden I had a job, but not one for which I had applied.
My job was to take care of my maternal grandmother, who had been diagnosed with metastatic small cell lung cancer. It was a terminal case. I felt it my duty to take care of her, and, though it caused me great sorrow to watch her die, I have never regretted tending to her in her final moments.
But, Lord, the pain! The heartache of seeing a vibrant woman decay each day, to see her body dwindle away to nothing but skin and cancer-ridden bones.
By the time the cancer had spread to every part of her body, including her brain, I was dying with her, though I didn’t know it at the time. She was the last member of my immediate family. I was losing her, losing what was left of my lineage, losing myself. I wanted to curl up beside her in bed and wrap myself around her withered body, to merge with her and give her some of my life, or take away some of her death.
Gramma died around 4:15 a.m. on a Friday morning in June. We had set up two beds in the basement, because of the convenient appliances and lavatory already situated there, and we slept toe to head in bed to bed. For no reason, or for a very certain reason, I suddenly awoke at 4:15, a tiresomely wee hour of the morn during which I was usually out cold. I went to check on Gramma. Her body was still warm—her chest artificially heaved one last time, bulging from the operation of the oxygen tank ticking nearby. She was dead, and my dynasty was gone.
What happened next is what I only later realized was my attempt at killing myself. I’d never contemplated suicide, not before this point in my life, not during, and not after. I was too afraid of death.
I am, after all, an academic at heart (and brain). Years of schooling have taught me to analyze everything and break it down. I am predisposed to figuring things out. For every question, there is an answer. And I am programmed to find that answer at all costs.
The greatest curse of the learned mind is the difficulty inherent in resolving faith with intellectual thought patterns. Faith is belief in something without proof, the very thing for which we scholars are always on the hunt. So how, pray tell, is the academically-inclined individual to believe in something she can’t prove when the need for proof is so deeply rooted in her nature?
For me, this dilemma comes acutely into play on matters of the hereafter—the concepts of an afterlife, life after death, heaven and hell, whatever you choose to call it.
Question: What happens after one dies?
I need to know that answer. I am programmed to find it. But I can’t. I’ve tried countless times, and the results were nil. So the question remains unanswered, and I am rendered hopeless, crippled by my fear of the unknown.
And, for that reason, I’ve flushed out any thoughts of suicide. I’m immune to them. Suicide would make me confront a question I can’t answer, and it might give me an answer I don’t like, or give me nothing at all.
But just because I’ve never been suicidal, that doesn’t mean I didn’t try to kill myself.
The method of annihilation I chose was one to obliterate all thought and feeling while preserving life. I was killing myself slowly and cruelly, taking my time.
I became a raging alcoholic through and through. Sure, I’d been an occasional drunk for years. College keggers, weekend benders, and 20-something birthdays saw to that. But after the loss of my grandmother, when I was for the first time ever completely alone in a home that once housed five, I became a full-blown alcoholic.
The alcohol was destroying my brain and my body, as well as my social ties and reputation. So too it was destroying my thinking and reason. I put myself in incredibly dangerous situations time after time, and, to this day, I am amazed that I survived.
I drove drunk, and sometimes drank as I drove. I picked up dozens of men in the bars, and had love affairs that lasted less than one night. Casual sex made me feel alive. Men made me feel good. I needed that assurance, so much so that I didn’t even care that the sex was unprotected most of the time.
I wanted to die. I never said it back then, didn’t allow myself to think it either; but hindsight later saw this as the case. I missed my family and wanted to be with them. I refused to abruptly take my life for fear of the unknown. But the slow draining of my soul was bringing me closer and closer to my beclouded goal.
I was at conflict with myself. Part of me wanted to die, and part of me wanted to live. I wanted to believe in the concept of an afterlife, to see myself being one day reunited with my lost loved ones. But my logic could not bring me to this conclusion. My mentality would not permit me to fathom an other-world existence.
I saw life as a finite line, with a distinct starting point and a distinct end. Nothing thrived beyond either point. If I could not bring to mind thoughts that existed before I was born, then, it follows, there could be no thoughts for me to bring to mind after I died. There was no way there could be any thought after death, let alone life after death. Any other argument was moot.
The panic attacks that resulted from this train of thought were intense, overwhelming at times. They took my breath away, but left me with enough breath to still be alive, albeit in a state of not truly living.
Drunk, desperate, and degraded, I was on a downward spiral, a road to nowhere. I was either intoxicated or overcome with anxiety every second of every day. I needed help, but I was too proud to seek it.
I’d kept so much sadness, fear, and longing inside of me for so long. I needed to let it out. I needed to tell someone my story. And the person I chose to tell was myself.
Ever since I was a child, I’d always dreamed of someday being an author. I fantasized about writing a book, having it published, and having other people read my words.
I was constantly tossing different book ideas around in my head, but never followed through with any of them until I decided to stick with the one thing that always stuck with me—the tragic and compelling story of my own life.
Pride, one of my most pronounced character defects, prevented me from writing anything autobiographical. So I decided to fictionalize my experiences. I would use my personal facts as the skeleton for a tome to be fleshed out with exaggerated details, brow-raising side stories, and shocking plot twists.
That tome came to be called “in wake of water.” It was published in Nov. 2011, by The Artists’ Orchard, LLC.
Loosely mirroring the losses I endured, “in wake of water” is a work of fiction which centers on a suicidal female who is driven to die because she operates under the assumption that death will reunite her with her deceased family members.
Countering the female lead’s beliefs are the thoughts and actions of the main male character, Tad, who is apprehensive about all aspects of life and death and who greatly fears the unknown.
Sound familiar? These two characters represent two parts of one psyche: mine.
The female character is my Id, the impulsive me that wants only instant gratification. Tad is my demanding Super-ego, who scrutinizes everything and requires adherence to objective guidelines.
As author, I took on the third role in Sigmund Freud’s infamous model. I became my own Ego, writing to strike a balance between the dissimilar needs of my fictitious tragic heroes. I did this for literary effect, so that I could tell an interesting, well-rounded story. But by the end of writing “in wake of water,” I’d achieved something else as well.
What I worked out in order to create good fiction ended up also creating good non-fiction. My writing had inadvertently been cathartic. I faced thoughts and feelings I’d tried to bury under books, drown in vodka, or find in the bulge beneath some random man’s zipper. I became familiar with myself and slew some inner demons. I achieved a sense of closure and of peace.
Writing, pitching, and publishing also helped me become and stay sober, though my sobriety is largely attributable to the fact that I later had children. So in a very real, tangible way, my writing helped save my life, by front-lining the rescue of my brain cells and liver.
But the intangible ways in which it saved my life are far more profound and long-lasting.
Bringing my inside pain to the outside was like popping a pimple that would otherwise have festered to fatal infection. The ugly sickness seeped out of me and left me clear-complexioned—and clear-minded.
For the first time in years, I was able to open my heart and my eyes, and, when I opened the latter, what I saw was amazing. I saw an open door. Finally! So I stood up, put myself back together, and walked through it.
On the other side there was a field, a surreal expanse of splendor, prospect, and perspective. When I stepped out onto that field, I heard something thunderous sound behind me. The door I’d just used for exit crashed shut and spontaneously combusted. I didn’t have to look back to know that it wasn’t there anymore.
I had once and for all escaped my never-ending hallway and found a place in my own nature, a place where all those fabled doors simply did not exist.
No longer did I need to frame my life in terms of openings and closings, in terms of losing this and gaining that, or in terms of something arising when something else was crushed. I would embrace these things as separate occurrences, each independent of the other, such that I’d find no entitlement tethered to suffering, no panic tethered to joy. And so came my release from the most pronounced shackles of my human condition. I was set free to run about the field and enjoy it.
Now, mind you, the field I’ve found is like any other out there. There are rocks to stumble over and upon, thorns on wild roses, and bramble. I have been hurt and have fallen quite a few times, but I always get back up and move on. There’s so much more out there to explore, discover, and write about. I ain’t gonna let a few bumps and bruises get in my way.
Described as a “psychological and thoughtful novel of suspense” by Midwest Book Review, “in wake of water” is available for purchase in traditional and digital formats on Amazon. To buy, follow the link on my Amazon author profile, http://amazon.com/author/sbrmartin, where you will also find a link to my second novel, “pig,” which was released as a Kindle Edition eBook on June 11, 2012.
Follow “in wake of water” on Facebook at http://facebook.com/inwakeofwater.