Legitimate Surrender

In 1948, a Christian missionary made her way to Haiti. I bet she never considered touching the life of a former drug addict 70 years down the road; particularly one who doesn’t feel too comfortable among the church-going crowd. The missionary’s son eventually built a school, and that school now provides education, food, and medical treatment to 648 children and the neighboring community. Tom describes a fullness of heart and a deep sense of ease he experienced when volunteering in Haiti recently as part of a team that went to install a solar power system for the school. “One act, that the original person will never know about, has created this amazing ripple effect. I think this happens to us every day, but we don’t have the scope to see it.”


Tom has such a sincere look of joy and appreciation on his face that it’s impossible not to feel my own heart fill up when I’m near this man. He and I have often spoken about the darkness, about the lives we used to live, and the lingering depression that nips at us with the persistence of scavenging jackals. So to see him with this resplendent smile on his face connects me to a tranquil energy, and I get the feeling that everything is going to be all right.


Tom stayed 20 days longer in Haiti than originally planned, and didn’t feel the pull to get back to something – back to work, back to reality, back to the shit most of us accept as standard. Much of his identity is derived from work, and it is difficult keeping up with his inexhaustible motor on a jobsite. His hands are so thick and calloused from years of manual labor that he struggles using his smart phone. The skin on his neck is thickened to handle long hours in the scorching sun. He is a team of plow horses concentrated into one construction worker, and he smiles all day at work. He embodies the kind of grit and work ethic that you can’t help but admire. Tom went to Haiti and stayed longer than he should. The equipment he was installing was delayed in customs, but it was during that time, as he sat around the school, watching the children play and reflecting on the woman who started the project back in 1948, that he was able to mend another important relationship. “The day that my heart finally filled was the day my mother died. I didn’t recognize it then but having this time in Haiti allowed me to finally understand.”


“Why do you think you never felt like this before?”


“I believe it was because I fought it: The unknown, the new, the change. It was really easy to fight that in the past. Now I’m open to it, I think. I’m very grateful for how far I’ve come.”


Saying Tom has come a long way brings up issues of scale and magnitude. In the depths of his darkest days, Tom was committed to psychiatric hold 13 times. Section 5150 of the California Welfare and Institutions Code allows for people to be institutionalized if they present a danger to themselves or others. Those who have experience with this process simply call it 5150. So I ask Tom to give me an example of a time he was 5150’d.


Tom tells me a story about waking up at a former girlfriend’s house at 2am and knowing that would be the day he killed himself. “It felt like it wasn’t even me saying this but something else that had taken over.” Tom grabbed a bottle vodka, got in his truck, and began driving alone. The plan was to drive 20 minutes to a neighboring city so he could leave his truck close to his friend’s house, a morbid farewell gift, all the while entertaining what Camus famously called the only valid question in philosophy: Why not kill myself?


Having been in and out of therapy for years, Tom had a stockpile of anti depressants and SSRI’s, so he drove down the freeway ingesting over 300 pills and adding swigs of vodka to lubricate the throat. He reached his destination, parked his truck, began writing a suicide note, and eased into the darkness with relative peace. But Life has a way of reminding us of Her tact and probity. Tom was thrust into writhing, agonizing convulsions as his system tried to eject the poison. As the pain became unbearable, Tom changed his mind. I heard a suicide survivor once say that the second he leapt over the railing of the bridge, he knew he had made a mistake, and he was filled with grief because he feared no one would ever know.


Tom called the police as his body heaved and bellowed. “I just took a bunch of pills, I tried to kill myself, but I don’t think it’s working, I’m really sick right now.” After the police secured the scene, they sat Tom on the curb and he remembers one officer looking at him with gentle eyes.


Tom cracks one fading laugh, which melts immediately, as he chokes up and apologizes for the tears.


The officer said, “What’s going on bro?” in a simple, friendly tone. Tom squints his eyes as the tears find their way into the safety of his beard. “I was just so sick. I didn’t want it to go on anymore.”


There was no major catalyst that prior evening. Tom and his girlfriend had a fun night of partying and sex, but there are moments deep within self-destruction that no analgesic can cure. “I knew I didn’t want to die but my brain was telling me I had to.” In the hospital, after the suicide attempt, Tom remembers the nurse saying, “Looks like you have to stick around for something.”


Tom and I have both used every imaginable vice as an attempt to the plug the holes in our hearts. I ask Tom where he thinks the problem first began.


When Tom was 9, he was arguing with his sister over the TV remote one night. His mom was out of town, running a religious retreat, so they both ran into the kitchen to have their dad issue a verdict. They saw their father lying on the floor, limbs spread akimbo, with an empty glass near his right hand. The ice had slid onto the carpet of the dining room and Tom became nervous because that was the good carpet, in the fancy room. Tom ran upstairs to get his older brother then shut himself in his room. He listened to everything as panic erupted downstairs; sister called 911, brother was cursing, ambulance arrived, all the while little Tom stayed in his room. The next morning Tom found his mother at the bottom of the stairs, staring in disbelief, before she looked up at her little boy and began sobbing. They didn’t say anything. They hugged and cried.


“I remember becoming very violent in the following weeks. My mom had to put me into therapy because I was breaking my door and stuff. It just felt good to break things. This one therapist had me hit a pillow with a bat and I thought it was useless. What’s the point if it doesn’t break?”


After a year of being a terror, he flipped a switch and became obsessed with church. Mom was into church, so Tom got into church. He would sing at the top of his lungs, and choose his Sunday outfits with care, as he fumbled his way through different means of filling his little heart. Then, at 12, he found drugs, “ And that was it. That was the fix. All the pain went away”


Heavy drug use. Needles full of crank into his neck. Therapy. Institutions. Rehab. Tom lived recklessly for years, yet was able to not only excel at his job, but also had a yearning to confess his depravity to anyone near his life. He would tell potential employers “look, just so you know before you hire me, I’m a methamphetamine addict.” We both laugh about his brash candor and I ask why he would do such things. “I was just dying to get fixed,” he tells me as he shakes his head and chuckles.  I know exactly what he means.


“So when did it finally stick? When did you get sober?”


“I remember I was driving to my dealer’s house one night in LA and my phone rang. Months prior, my girlfriend had introduced me to this rehab place and I talked to them over the phone and then never thought about it again. So I pick up my phone that night and it was them, this rehab, and they ask me “Are you ready?” Without any hesitation I answered yes and I don’t really know why. I called my dealer and told him I wasn’t coming. Then I went to my storage unit where I had a stash of every kind of pill and amphetamine imaginable. Did everything. Showed up to the rehab just fucked up out of my mind. Checked in. And that’s how it started.”


“You had been to rehab before. Why did it stick this time?”


“Because it was a legitimate surrender. That phone call, my answer, that was a legitimate surrender. I became good friends with my roommate in that rehab, so we helped to keep each other going. To follow that up I decided I’d do everything they told me to do, and by “they” I mean the group, the rehab, and my sponsor. Prior to that I had made the decisions; I said when I was leaving rehab. This time I gave it all to them.” The initial 30 day commitment turned in 90. Not only did Tom attend AA meetings ever day, but he participated with sincerity. Eventually Tom found his way to sober living houses and stayed there for the next 18 months, all the while attending 3 meetings a day and sticking tight to the AA curriculum. Those were difficult times for Tom. Feeling emotions again for the first time since childhood can be a revolting discovery. He tried to hang himself from a closet pole but failed. He stuck it out, he did what they told him, and even though he had difficulty with his sponsors, Tom gave his system enough of a shock to change something.


“After 18 months I made the decision to leave. I had to get my life back. I had to start working. I made my way back up north and it was around that time that I had a day that changed my life. I had a day when I experienced my first fleeting moments without depression, without anxiety. It was only part of the day, not all of it, but it was like God said, “Here you go – here’s a little taste.” It was that taste of freedom that pushed me to keep going. For the next six years or so I really struggled but I had two things I knew: Those struggles weren’t as bad as those 18 months in sober living, and I remembered that taste of the good day. I’ve been alcohol and methamphetamine free for 10 years now.”


Tom still has dark days. It’s the reason we are such easy friends. He is one of the only people I know who is completely open about his struggles yet genuinely optimistic about it all. He’ll go down for a few days with heavy depression and not come out of his house. He hides like I hide. But then he comes back out, and when we see each other he tells me everything. He is so open, vulnerable, and sanguine about his struggles that I release some long-held tension within myself, some fear of being discovered, because he makes me feel safe to be human.


“So where is the hope coming from these days?”


“This is really hard to talk about because it is so deep, and so immense, that I don’t really understand it. All I know right now is God has filled my heart.”


Tom brings the story back to his days of addiction and ties in another thread.


“So my brother-in-law got sober a little before me and we really watched each other grow. Way back I remember seeing this light in his eyes and asking him “What are you doing?” There was this deep peace about it him and I wanted what he had.”


The brother-in-law responded by saying: “I’m walking the red road.”


The red road is the concept of walking a morally virtuous life as inspired by some of the beliefs found in Indigenous American teachings. Tom began attending sweat lodges with his brother-in-law and asking plenty of questions. He had also been researching alternative cures for depression and a few common themes kept coming up. One day his brother-in-law mentioned Ayahuasca, but Tom was strict with his sobriety – he wouldn’t even take aspirin. The brother-in-law didn’t push, and Tom held to his orthodox AA teaching for another year until he felt the calling. They always say that people don’t seek Ayahuasca –She seeks you.


If that first day without depression was the beginning of hope for Tom, then his first Ayahuasca ceremony was the day he finally came back home. It’s difficult to describe an Ayahuasca experience, but most journeyers talk about home – about finding a sense of peace because of a grand return home, in this universe, on this Earth, that makes them struggle to understand how they were ever separated from this immense truth in the first place. Little Tom finally returned home and made peace with who he is. “The Ayahuasca has just opened doors for me to do my own healing. It’s not like I’m giving all the power to it. It’s not the end all. It just opened something that has been closed for a very long time.”


With all this immense healing, and the incredible steps taken by the child who hid in his room all those years ago, Tom was able to be fully present this past year when his mother fell ill. She went unconscious for the last six days of her life and Tom recalls those foggy mornings, having his coffee and cigarette at 5am, looking out over the landscape and absorbing the events with clarity. Before she slipped into the coma, his mother’s last words to her son were “I Love You.” So when Tom’s sister woke him up on the sixth day and told him their mother had passed, Tom was filled relief and gratitude. They did it the right way. The family came together, and Tom heard the words that allow us to understand our place in this universe.


“I went outside that morning and everything was in bright Technicolor accent. The sky was clear. Birds were in stereo. It was unbelievable how bright and beautiful it was. And I wasn’t able to process it then, about this thing filling my heart, until I was in Haiti with all that time on my hands.”


At 47 years old, Tom tells me, “I feel absolutely amazed at what’s happening in my life, and I’ve never felt this before. Before it used to be mostly darkness with only slivers of light. Now it’s the opposite. And I accept the times of darkness because I know it’s teaching me something, and I know it’s not permanent, and that’s a huge difference from before.”


Tom laughs when trying to explain how he feels these days. “I feel so full of Spirit, and I’m always like: “What? Me?” I was telling the people on the Haiti trip how I pray and keep in mind they are Christian. I was never comfortable praying in words, or asking for things, so now I draw a picture in my mind, full of incredible detail, and I give it to God, and God hangs it on the fridge. I realize now how important the darkness was to get me to this place. My pain made me search, and these days I’m fascinated with self-awareness.”


“What is self-awareness to you?”


 “I think self-awareness is looking for the good in others. Once you feel a connection to other people then you’re allowing them to come into you. That’s what I’m working on right now.”


“Why do you think you’re still alive?”


“I believe I’m supposed to touch somebody’s life. Maybe just in passing. But I’m not done yet. I don’t think it will be some profound thing that’s world changing, but somebody who I cross paths with needs a piece of what I have. And vice versa… to keep me growing”


So here he is today with an overflowing heart – a glowing example of redemption, compassion, and hope. Tom feels he is meant to touch someone’s life, and what I can tell you is he already has. We all constantly talk behind his back and marvel at this human being, this kind man who will build you a bridge with his bare hands if you ask, and we often nod silently in agreement. That’s it. That’s the human experience. The pain, the healing, the great awakening to the big secret: We are here to help each other.

Anto Ljoljic2 Comments