By Mark E. Smith
Among the incidents in my life that has haunted me most is the suicide of singer and quadriplegic, Vic Chestnut. Some things just hit too close to home for comfort.
As I’ve written and spoken extensively about – although Vic’s suicide was a combination of factors – arguably the largest factor was an overwhelming sense of isolation and loneliness. And, as I’ve processed Vic’s final act over several years now – an act made as much out of heightened self-awareness as depression – I’ve never been able to answer the question of, did Vic simply kill himself, or did the world around him indirectly take his life?
In the realm of psychology, there’s a term, “parentified-child,” which applies to children who, based on extremely dysfunctional parents – addicts, mentally ill, physically ill, emotionally inept – must assume adult-like roles, literally parenting their parents. At a time when a child should be nurtured, he or she is thrust into the role of nurturer. As a result, the child learns that his or her feelings and needs are second – or, non-existent, really – to everyone else’s, and identity and self-worth are sacrificed. Such children grow up being drawn toward very unhealthy, unbalanced relationships and lifestyles, rarely capable of truly looking out for their own interests. And, the internal isolation that ultimately exists – where he or she struggles to let people in, to be nurtured – often leads to self-destructive behavior. You might say that such individuals implode rather than explode from emotions.
As adults, we can find ourselves in similar situations due to any number of circumstances, where we’re always the nurturer, never to be nurtured – and, again, it implodes the soul. Vic lived this, where he absorbed too much of the pain from others and the world around him, with little space to express his own, that it literally killed him. Going from “fame” on stage where you give yourself to others so completely, then being alone in a hotel room with not a single person in the world with you – or who you feel emotionally safe enough to call – is a harrowing experience. It helped kill Vic, and it’s chased me a few nights.
I was born a “parentified-child.” I learned early in life that loving someone meant saving him or her at your own expense – but that’s not how love should work, does work, or can work. My mother was as dysfunctional as one can be – substance abuse, mental illness, divorces – and from as young as I can recall, I just wanted to make her feel better, where her emotions were far more important to me than my own. And, it’s not a bad trait as a son or a person to want to save someone who you dearly love. However, there has to be a line we draw between being forced into that role as a child, versus choosing that role as an adult in relationships. And, I’ve chosen that role for too long, where loving has always been easy for me, but being loved, not so much. And, so my comfort zone has always been giving as much as I can to others, and using it as a smoke screen to avoid my own feelings of vulnerability. And, it works really well.
Until it doesn’t. And, ultimately, like Vic, I’m alone in a hotel room, staring at a cell phone, unable to call anyone. But, it’s not that there’s no one to call. I just can’t. They have spouses and children and jobs – and who am I to interrupt their lives with my desperate moment of all-consuming isolation and loneliness, where I’ve gone from the soaring affirmation of a public event, to an emotional crash landing, alone.
But, I’m cognizant of it all. On a recent trip, my friends bought me a rock-star-size bottle of Southern Comfort, all in good spirits. And, with it sitting on the restaurant table, not only did I know that I couldn’t drink out of fear of drinking heavily, period, but that if I took the bottle back to my hotel room, all of Hell could break loose for me. Isolated and ungrounded, with my past still not allowing me to reach out in such moments, I could easily unscrew the cap from the bottle over the bathroom sink, chug it one-fisted, toasting to Vic, the whole bottle – gone.
So, I left the bottle on the restaurant table, and split – sober and safe. And, I made it through the night, alone in my hotel room. “Mark takes care of Mark,” I said to myself while shaving in the mirror the next morning. And, I was back at it with the new day, there for everyone – and I meant it.
Then, as the day turned to eve, then to night, the bottle showed up again with my friends. “You left this at the restaurant last night,” they said.
I went along with the well-intended amusement, but, again, with Mark looking out for Mark, never to drink with Vic because I know where it could lead, I ditched the bottle somewhere – so much in a panic that I don’t recall where – and I made it through another night, isolated, lonely, but safe.
However, like the isolation and loneliness that’s come and gone much of my life, the bottle mysteriously showed up again – in my van. And, so with a friend leaving town, too, I tucked the bottle in his truck, and sent it on its way, far from me.
I got in my van, and headed a few hours home, where I couldn’t wait to see my daughter, our two dogs, and ultimately get back to the stability of my office routine. And, so just as the bottle of Southern Comfort went away, soon would the isolation and loneliness – at least for now.