What you give up
A life storyBY THOMAS RAIN CROWE
As I watched her go, an earlier soul-shattering experience was called from memory. Something that, somehow, made the act of this leaving a little softer, if not less painful, while seeming to verify her philippic.
I was 20 years old and beginning my second year of college. This was the late 1960s and, along with a huge minority of my generation, I was ensconced and entrenched in the hip drug subculture of the times.
College, at Furman University in Greenville, was little more than an alibi and excuse for avoiding the draft while I waited for my draft board to deny my appeal for status as a conscientious objector.
School had never set well with me, and my first year of college had been a washout, with drugs, alcohol and "alternative living" along with an active interest in the counter-culture politics of the day replacing any semblance of academic interest or discipline.
This went along with the general psyche of the times that had embraced the attitude that escape in the form of derangement-of-the-senses was somehow as subversive in its activism as was the more obviously political idea of actually overthrowing the government.
The drugs, the alcohol and the continuous "deranging," over a period of years, by the beginning of that third college semester, must have reached a plateau as I had only recently returned to the Southern campus of my alma mater when all hell broke lose.
It began with the dreams, with nightmares from which I would awake in the middle of the night shaking with fear. That was followed, quickly, with anxiety attacks, coming first at night, then during any time of day.
After some weeks, and with the nightmares and attacks having rendered me almost a complete insomniac, I was overcome with huge dark waves of paranoia. Fear of death. Hallucinations. Thoughts of suicide.
What had been sporadic and mostly a night-induced alteration of my sensibilities became a 24-hour ordeal, a waking nightmare taking every bit of energy and attention I had to fight off the demonic threat of death and insanity which had camped out on the doorstep of my soul. The onslaught of the dark forces at work within (and what I perceived as also occurring without) me was relentless if not overpowering.
It was at this point that I, for the sake of my sanity and my life, sought professional help. No stone was left unturned in my desperate attempts to identify the source of my condition as well as a means of eradicating it: thorazine, psychoanalysis, spiritual counseling, diet, drug rehab. But the symptoms only got worse.
Nine months had gone by and I was reaching the end of my physical and psychic rope from the lack of sleep or any form of rest from the relentless, and what I perceived of as quite literal presence of darkness, that seemed to possess both body and soul.
After almost a year, and with death camped out at my door, exhausted and with every possible outlet for the eradication of this "illness" explored I, one day, found myself standing in front of the large window in my dorm room looking out at an old maple tree which, even in late August was lit up like a psychedelic Christmas tree. Or so my deranged senses perceived it.
I had stood and watched the dance of extraterrestrial light of this tree many times in the preceding months, even in rare moments enjoying the flickering incandescence. But now the lights only represented the death threats that came from every nook and cranny of my deranged and reclusive life.
Despite being an avowed atheist, my fatigue and frustration on that day cut a path through my rational mind and found me down on my knees in front of that large window with the maple outside lit up like Christmas, in a state I can only describe, now, as prayer.
The words that came from my lips in that moment of acquiesence and surrender were shocking, even in my desperate condition, but I had come to the end of my tether, and couldn't go on.
"If there is a God, anywhere," I heard myself say, "and if you can hear me, I can't do this anymore, alone. It's too much for me, I am too tired, and I give up."
No sooner (and I swear to any god this is true) had I said these words, than the "lights" on the maple tree beyond the glass of the large window I stood facing, went out. And for the first time in many months I saw the tree in its natural colors and form.
As I admired and rejoiced in the transfiguration of the tree, I noticed, too, that the fear and trembling that had been my constant companion for the better part of a year had, also, disappeared. My body, for what felt like the first time, was at rest. The heavy veil of debilitating darkness had been lifted. And in that moment I knew that it was gone for good. That the act of complete and unconditional surrender had broken the spell of the undiagnosed dis-ease that had taken possession of my life and almost ended it.
As I stood there basking in the moment of my release, I knew I was standing in the middle of the moment of a "miracle." What countless Christians called "being saved." The blinding light that came to Saul on the road to Tarsus. The burning bush that spoke to Moses. The parting of the Red Sea... and now my moment of surrender, that had brought me back, like Lazarus, from the living dead.
"You get what you give up," she said, and left. I had yet to hear those words as I stood in that moment of grace that felt like bliss and would, ultimately, change my life.
I had given up ALL control over my condition and situation and placed that control and, in fact, my life, in the hands of something outside and greater than myself. And in doing so, had changed the paradigm of my destiny from desperation and potential disaster to that of rest, clarity and hope. Changed what would have been, surely, death, into life-like water becoming wine with a simple act of surrender, with a single word.
Thomas Rain Crowe is a poet, translator and publisher of New Native Press and Fern Hill Records. Having grown up in western North Carolina, he returned in 1979, and now makes his home in Tuckaseegee.
As I stood there basking in the moment of my release, I knew I was standing in the middle of the moment of a "miracle." What countless Christians called "being saved."