Columnist tells of a lifesaving break in the clouds
She cornered me in an empty classroom. Her short, stubby body seemed to quiver with a steely resolve, suggesting she had been lying in wait for a moment such as this. The year was 1971.
This would be no ordinary lecture. A wildly popular advertising slogan, these eight simple words raised money for African-American students to attend college. Instead she drew them like a weapon, pointed them at my lily-white forehead, and pulled the trigger.
“A mind is a terrible thing to waste.”
Given my slightly above average performance in 10th grade, Mrs. Albert had chosen me as her teaching assistant for the following year. Over the course of the summer I discovered marijuana: a counterfeit cure for hopelessness. By the time September rolled around I was madly in love with weed. By mid-semester, my grades had plummeted, and I kept forgetting to feed the fish in her saltwater aquarium.
I mumbled something inane and beat feet into the relative safety of a south Florida lightning storm. Hunched under my black umbrella, I scurried home without looking up or around. This trail of despair had begun at my house; ironically, school had been my refuge.
My father was a World War II vet with a nasty case of PTSD. As an adult I developed compassion for his broken soul, but coming home from school every day induced a gut-clenching dread. Marijuana tamed the terror. It didn’t relieve hopelessness; it was more like a loan that accrued interest. I borrowed peace for a few hours. When the high wore off, so did the peace, bringing fatigue, lethargy and an increasingly guilty conscience. It was the fog that kept on giving; hopelessness with a shame chaser.
I thought everyone lived that way.
By the grace of God I stumbled unevenly but eventually into the arms of faith. In Jesus I found love and forgiveness; in the Bible I found hope. In the recovery community I found friends who reached into my pit and pulled me up into the light. In sobriety I tripped over a life-changing truth:
Help is available, and I can choose to pursue it.
As a child I had no options. Mrs. Albert couldn’t have known about the beatings, and I wasn’t allowed to tell anyone. She just saw me pitching my smarts in the sewer. Forty-five years later I still remember this teacher who cared, but all she had to offer was “Don’t do drugs.” Hopelessness was all I knew, and drugs were the only option I was aware of.
Miracles can happen when we learn that real help exists. We participate in miracles when we help each other find help.
Twenty-seven years have passed since I made the healthy decision to pursue recovery. My journey has included 12-step work, medication, faith and friends. I’d love to say despair never reared its ugly head again, but nothing could be further from the truth. Life on Earth is difficult; Jesus promised it would be (John 16:33). I’d love to say I respond well to every crisis, but nothing could have prepared me for some of the blows that were yet to come:
• “A family member took all your mother’s money, leaving her destitute and ineligible for Medicaid.”
• “Your work is great — we just don’t like your personality. You’re fired.”
• “Your daughter has been in an accident. I’m sorry; she didn’t survive.”
Ultimately no one avoids the monster of misfortune, who wields the club of despair.
Researchers at the Centers for Disease Control and Health Statistics recently released results from a study on cause of death for Americans 10 and older from 1999 to 2014. Demographically, suicide rates are up almost across the board. White folks aged 45-64 earned the dubious distinction of the demographic with the largest increase in suicide rates. NPR published findings by demographers and economists who, in researching this trend, discovered that “the increase in death was likely due to ‘unintentional poisonings’ mainly alcohol and drug poisoning, and chronic liver disease.”
Mrs. Albert was right. A mind is a terrible thing to waste. Wasting a life is worse, for every suicide leaves broken survivors.
May is Mental Health Month. The CDC provides a wealth of information at cdc.gov/ViolencePrevention/Suicide. Both the National Suicide Prevention Hotline (800-273-8255) and the Rocky Mountain Crisis Partners (844-493-8255) offer 24/7 support in both English and Spanish.
As for me, I eventually bought a transparent umbrella. Walking under the black dome of darkness, I hadn’t even grasped the concept that other roads existed. Being able to look through the rain opened my eyes to other avenues where the puddles weren’t so deep and friends lived along the way. Once in a while I saw breaks in the clouds, and occasionally, even the sun shining through.
“Hope is being able to see that there is light despite all of the darkness.”
— Desmond Tutu
Rachel Ophoff of El Jebel works as a right-brained writer/speaker and a left-brained bookkeeping consultant. A diehard “Star Trek” fan, she celebrates the days she’s firing on all thrusters. Her column will appear on the second Wednesday of the month. For more, visit rachelophoff.com.
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