Chased By It

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.


The Hidden Nature of Icebergs

By Mark E. Smith

The average iceberg is 90% under water – that is, only 10% of it is visible above the surface. When we know this fact, it becomes obvious why icebergs are so dangerous to ships: What’s unseen below the surface causes catastrophes like that of the Titanic.

Most people are a lot like icebergs, where we only see a very small glimpse of who they really are, where we never know what’s truly going on in their lives beneath the surface. Maybe they’re strangers among us in line at the grocery store, colleagues who we pass in the hall at work, or even friends and family members. Sure, we see their outer appearances, smiling and cordial, but we truly don’t know much past that superficial persona.

Interestingly, some of the most harrowing stories that I’ve ever encountered involved among the most poised people, where at a glance, their smiles and demeanor would never hint at the challenges that they faced. People have said to me, Wouldn’t it be great to have his or her life? And, I’ve thought, If you only knew the struggles that he or she faces beneath the surface….

I met one young lady in her early 20s who appeared to not have a care in the world – stunningly attractive and on the fast-track in her career – and everyone was envious of her at a glance. Yet, as she was gracious enough to share with me, her home life as a child was an abuse-filled nightmare, and now in her 20s, she’s raising her two little sisters because her step-father shot her mother, then shot himself. And, she lives with that reality 90% below the surface every day, moving forward the best that she can, with poise and a smile. How that 90% hasn’t pulled her under in life defies logic, and as I spoke with her, the best advice that I could offer was that I hoped that she’d slowly bring her 90% to the surface, where the appropriate people close to her could know of her struggles and thereby help, where she realizes that she’s not alone in facing life’s challenges.

In ways, we’re fortunate when among our foremost challenges is a physical disability, where it’s so in the open that we can’t hide it – an iceberg well above the surface for all to see. Of course, many with physical disabilities would gladly hide their disabilities if they could, but what’s not realized is that, again, it’s usually burdening when we hide much of ourselves from others. Truly, we’re fortunate that physical disability requires us to live bold lives, where as long as we’re interacting with others, they at least know part of our struggles in life – and there’s a refreshing candor and honesty to that, one to which many can relate. When others see our obvious struggles, it can often let them know that they’re not alone in facing life’s challenges, whatever they may be.

I’ve also witnessed how disability can put us more in tune with others, where we can often sense others’ struggles, where while we may only literally see 10% of the iceberg like everyone else, we still intuitively recognize something much deeper beneath the surface that needs embracing – a kinship of sorts.

I was in a tiny restaurant in rural Virginia, having dinner late one night with several volunteers who were working the disability awareness program with me at the National Boy Scout Jamboree. We had a lot to talk about, so it was a long dinner. Throughout the evening, the waitress who served us was polite and courteous, but I learned nothing about her except for her name, Tiffany. Yet, there was something about Tiffany that made an impression on me, something that I couldn’t define.

By the time we were ready to leave the restaurant, my group was the only one left, and my colleagues finally made their way out the door, leaving me behind fiddling with my wallet and phone, finishing my soda. As I spun my wheelchair around to head out of the door to catch up with my group, Tiffany came up to thank me for being a customer, and she put out her hand to shake mine.

“Everyone hugs Mark,” I said, smiling, a line that I always use, opening myself up for a hug.

Tiffany, without hesitation, stepped forward and hugged me. And, what caught my attention was that she didn’t just hug me and step back; rather, she hugged me for several moments, and when she finally stepped back, she was sobbing to the point that she grabbed a napkin off of the table, and wiped her eyes.

“I’m sorry,” she said with an awkward laugh. “…Typical woman.”

“Don’t be,” I said, putting my hand on her forearm. “If I told you everything is going to be OK, would you believe me?”

“I know,” she said, wiping her tears. “You know, it’s just hard sometimes.”

“And, we get through it,” I said. “Been there, done that – we get through it.”

I backed my wheelchair into the door, and pushed it open, rolling in reverse. “You’re going to get through this, Tiffany, I know you will! …We all do,” I said, rolling out the door as she just smiled and waved, watching me leave.

I had no idea who Tiffany was beyond her waitress role, or what issues she was facing in her life. However, clearly there was some sort of vying in her life, and what touched me was that, for a brief moment, we both acknowledged that challenges that are intrinsic to all of our lives – the icebergs just below the surface. Was it my disability, or my offering a hug that suddenly brought her iceberg to the surface? Probably a little of both, along with her presumably having a really bad day, where, again, for reasons I’ll never know, she was particularly emotional. No matter, I’m thankful that I extended a hug at the right place, at the right time, and made a very authentic connection, letting a seeming total stranger know that she wasn’t alone, as it likewise reminded me that I’m not alone in my struggles.

People are so darn scared to be authentic, to show any more than 10% of themselves. Likewise, we’re scared to look beyond the 10% of others, where when we say, Hi, how are you?, to colleagues in the hall, we truly aren’t seeking a sincere answer – but, we should be. Now, I’m not saying pour your heart out to your boss or to strangers in line at Wal-Mart – there’s a right and wrong time for everything. However, at some point, on a larger scale, we need to be willing to open up ourselves more to those around us, where we’re not afraid to expose or recognize more than 10% in each other. In hip talk, take chances and be real with others – you’ll be amazed at the way it changes your interactions for the better.

During your day, you likely cross paths with a lot of people, where your only initial glimpse of them is of that superficial 10%. Make an effort to look a little deeper – in others and yourself – to where you’re bold and brave enough to truly connect with others, where you’re reminded that we’re all in this often cold sea of life together. Indeed, when we’re open enough to share the 90% of each other that really counts, our perceptions of each other most often change for the better, not unlike witnessing the stunning depth and beauty of icebergs hidden beneath the surface. All you have to do is look for them – they’re there.