I sat in my car, waiting for my Guest to arrive, but I didn’t see anybody.
Go figure. Stood me up.
I was just starting the second semester of my freshman year at a college in the St. Louis area, and I was dealing with major depression. Anxiety disorders and depression ran in my family’s history, as well as in my own. In fact, I was almost hospitalized just four years earlier in high school because of an overwhelming onset of obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), something that I never completely outgrew.
But this was a little different than the depressive episodes I had before. My sorrow ran so deep that my left bicep was bloody and scarred from cutting myself to cope, and I had been fantasizing about suicide. I daydreamed about the different ways I could kill myself like a teenage girl daydreams about marrying the perfect man.
I was a mess, which is why I was in my car this night. I had driven to my church and sat in its empty parking lot, hoping God would literally meet me where I was at. I listened for His voice and swiveled my head to watch for Him, but He wasn’t there. He had stood me up. I came to His house, knocked on the door, and He left me out in the cold.
Something else caught my attention: the parking lot had a large lightpost to illuminate the entire area, but much like my spirits, the light was off.
What if I hit that lightpost? I began to wonder. I bet I could get up to 55 in this parking lot.
I wasn’t necessarily intent on killing myself. Rather, I was interested in hitting that lightpost full-force, just to see what would happen. And, if I happened to die, then so be it.
I resolved that I would smash my car into the post. I grabbed the steering wheel tightly enough to turn my knuckles white, then began to drive.
If I died, who would care?
God didn’t even care to show up to intervene.
I bet people would be talking about me for a little while.
Then they’d forget me.
And what if this doesn’t even kill me? I’ll be so embarrassed.
This is really happening. I’m about to crash my car.
I need to be stronger than this. It can’t end like this.
You’re stronger than this.
This isn’t how it ends.
This isn’t how it ends!
I told you. This isn’t how it ends. Pull over.
I slowed down to 5 mph and swerved to the left of the lightpost, then put the car into park. I turned my head to the right and, as if I could see into a parallel universe, saw a car that had its hood smashed in and its windshield caved into the front seat, smoke rising to the sky. I saw my mangled torso on the hood, my lower body and legs wrapped around the lightpost. My dying carcass was panting, gasping for air as blood dripped down my mouth; my glossed eyes were wide open, staring back at me. We exchanged glances with one another, and the distorted version of myself moved its lips to tell me something.
This isn’t how it ends, he said. This isn’t how it ends.
Despite a few particular nuances, this hopeless situation was not unlike my confinement in the hotel bathroom; I felt as trapped now as I had the night I left for boot camp. I wanted to remind myself how I weathered through that period in my life, just putting one foot in front of the other and marching on. I had huffed and puffed my way through basic training, wanting to quit every day, but holding onto the hope that there would be something better for me if I just finished this trial. Eventually graduation day came, and I stood as a proud soldier, ready to face whatever the world threw at me.
Aye, but back then I actually believed in what I was doing, that I was doing my patriotic duty. But now, I realized that while I appreciated America as a nation, I’d never be willing to die for her. The mere thought of dying for my country seems unappealing and terrifying.
Back then, I rationalized that the September 11th attacks were my motivation for enlisting. But when I really think about it, I was barely 15 years old when those attacks happened, much too young and naïve to truly comprehend what happened that day. I had tricked myself into believing I was angry when I watched those towers fall; being honest with myself now, the only emotion I can remember feeling that day is confusion.
I used to justify my enlistment by saying I was carrying on the family tradition of military service. Who was I kidding? True, both of my grandfathers served in World War II, but since then, not a single family member on either side of my extended family had been in any branch of the military. Collectively, my grandfathers had 25 descendants after them, none of which had any involvement in the military. I was the 26th descendant, the one who broke that mold. So to say that there’s some kind of “family pride” that I was living up to was a crock.
I would deceive myself, saying that if nothing else, I was enlisting because I liked serving others. But when did my actions ever speak such a concept? Against my idealistic assessments, I have now come to accept that I’m a selfish person who feels no duty to give back to anybody who hasn’t first served me. To utter anything otherwise is a lie.
I didn’t realize it when I signed the papers, but I had always been living a life that constantly yet subtly drove me towards enlisting.
Throughout my childhood, I was poked fun at for being weak. My older brother would taunt me for being puny, and my baby brother would take those cues and tease me, too. I felt so inferior, and I resented them for it. So, I sought to be better than my brothers, to find ways to become stronger than them.
One day during junior high recess, I was hanging around my friends who were talking about the upcoming pee-wee football season. They all seemed to have a camaraderie that I was excluded from.
“Hey, you guys,” I piped in. “I want to be on your team. I’m going to join the football team.”
Several of the kids started snickering. My best friend at the time put his hand on my shoulder.
“Nathan,” he tried finding the words, “You’re… the problem is… I don’t think you can play.”
“Well why not?”
“Football is hard. Football is for guys who are… well, football players are strong. You’re not built for it.”
“Can’t I at least try? Can’t the coach decide if I’m not good enough?”
“Well, Nathan, I just don’t think you’ll… you won’t survive the practices. They’re too hard for you. You… you’re too weak.”
Two weeks later, I was out on the practice field in pads, ready to play some football. Nobody believed I could persevere through the rigorous calisthenics, so I became determined to survive the football season. Not only did I survive my first year, but I signed up and played the following two seasons as well. I dreaded the coming of autumn every year because I was so much weaker than the other kids, but I needed to prove I could be strong. When I was done with my junior high football career, I hadn’t achieved anything remarkable, and for its entire duration, I had been a talentless player. But I was still a player.
In high school, I shifted my focus from sports to theatre, having always dreamt of being a film actor.
“Alright, everyone ready to rehearse this?” the director asked.
In one scene, six Thespians were needed to grab the arms and legs of the lead actress, lifting her over their heads and carrying her across the stage. Along with another guy and several girls, I had been chosen for this task. I was honored to do it.
“Hoist!” the director screeched.
We picked the actress up and started carrying her to the other end of the room. It was easy at first, but something started going wrong in the middle of our practice: the actress was slipping, and our ensemble was about to drop her.
Mustering all our strength, we gently set her on her feet while we gathered ourselves. What had gone wrong?
“Nathan!” the director snapped. “You dropped her. That was your fault! Now, try it again. Hoist!”
We picked the actress back up, finding the same results: we had no trouble at first, but she started slipping and we had to set her down again.
“Nathan, that’s it. You’re being replaced by someone else.”
I didn’t know what to say. I didn’t think it was my fault alone, but I didn’t know for sure. The director picked up on my embarrassment.
“Nathan, you’re just too weak,” her eyes exuded disappointment. “You’re letting your team down.”
I dared not look around. I had just gotten fired in front of everyone, being told that I was weaker than even the girls in the play. I was pathetic and humiliated; the exact opposite of what someone would expect from a future soldier.
Throughout my entire life, I never felt like I was good enough. While there are many actual reasons that I enlisted, all of them have one thing in common: pure, unadulterated hubris. I wanted to prove to the world that I was stronger, braver, and crazier than they gave me credit for. And Uncle Sam whispered in my ear that he would give me that chance, so I took his hand.
At no point in my life would anyone have guessed that I’d be one to enlist. But I did enlist. And I did because no one thought I ever would. I enlisted telling very few people beforehand, so when I announced my decision to everyone else, nobody could scoff at me, insisting I wouldn’t actually go through with the paperwork.
I went to boot camp in hopes that I could prove I had value. But only being 17 years old, I didn’t grasp tactical concepts as well as the other soldiers did. From the beginning, I received a lot of extra attention from the drill sergeants; my lack of inherent soldier qualities made me their special project. Halfway through boot camp, I broke down in tears, realizing that the drill sergeants and my fellow recruits thought I was a poor excuse of a soldier. But I refused to quit; I refused to return to my senior year of high school without wearing a soldier’s beret. The drill sergeants recognized my determination, this inability to give up, and helped me achieve the standard that the U.S. Army expected of its soldiers. I barely graduated boot camp, but at least I graduated.
Ultimately, I liked to rationalize that I enlisted because I wanted to make a difference in the world. Now that I was less naïve, I understood the grim truth: I didn’t enlist to make a difference in the world. I enlisted to make a difference in my world.
I wanted to be strong. I wanted to be worthy. I wanted to be unafraid. I wanted to prove that I wasn’t the same pathetic kid that I’d been all my life. Haughty and superfluous reasons, to be sure. But I’ve already admitted that I’m selfish and only interested in serving myself, so perhaps this shouldn’t be as much a shock. But despite these faults – and they are faults, don’t be fooled – maybe someone would respect me. Maybe someone would let me be a hero, even for just a moment. That’s all I’ve ever wanted, really. Maybe someone would let me be their hero.
I almost forgot that I was parked in my car, now hypnotized by the snowbank in front of me. I wasn’t sure what I was doing here, but I was here nonetheless, and so I just accepted it. I took my hand off the shift, curled up into a ball in the driver’s seat, and fell asleep in the desolate church parking lot.
When I woke up in the morning, I had no confusion about where I was. I knew physically I was in a church parking lot, but mentally, emotionally, and spiritually, I was at rock bottom. My life was a wreck.
I pulled out my cell phone and called home.
“Mom, Dad? Hey, it’s me. Um… I need some help. No, not money. I need you to call Dr. Callaghan. Uh huh. Yea…yeah, it’s… yeah. It’s pretty urgent.”