Caution: you may not want to read the following story. Seriously.
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-=[ Letting Go of Guilt ]=-
I have written about guilt before. In a way, I believe guilt (along with ignorance) should be considered one of the deadly sins because it’s responsible for so much suffering.
I usually make a big stink about my birthday -- celebrating it and letting as many people as I can know about it, but it wasn’t always that way. Many years ago, my stepfather, Vincent, a man I loved and saw as a surrogate father, committed suicide in the early morning hours of my birthday. He put a gun to his temple and pulled the trigger. Just like that...
I’m asleep in a drunken stupor. I’m vaguely aware of someone trying to shake me awake. I think it’s Vincent, but I’m not even sure if it’s him or a dream. Annoyed I shrug him away and tell him to leave me alone, and I crawl back under his car. He tells me he really needs to talk to me and I tell him, or the dream, that it can wait. To leave me the fuck alone.
It was the day before my birthday and we were living in Houston. It was Friday and my stepfather had picked me up from work and I asked him to stop by the liquor store to stock up for our usual Friday family get-togethers. In retrospect Vincent seemed a little different that day, more pensive, and we spoke on the way home. He told me a lot of things: how he was feeling pressure to maintain the quality of life; he spoke of disappointments -- he spoke about a lot things.
I was surprised because Vincent was the type of man who never complained. He was cut from old school: never let them know how you feel. He was a rock. He was a worker. Vincent was made of the stuff that made this country. He got up in the morning worked very hard, and he provided. That’s what he was taught a man was supposed to do. But he would never really talk about what was going on in his mind. He was a stoic in that sense. He did what he had to do without complaint.
On the way home that day we talked and we explored how maybe we can do things differently. I was working and I could help him financially (he wouldn’t accept money from me) and that he should let my mother know about the financial problems and stop trying to put up a façade that everything was fine.
When we got home that day, there was no one there -- everyone had left to go fishing. My mother’s an avid fisher and it wasn’t unusual for her to round everyone up and go crabbing or fishing. At the time, my sister and brother, as well as myself, were all staying in the house. My sister, had a live-in lover, as did my younger brother. Actually, my sister had only recently moved out, but she was there all the time. My other sister, lived nearby and was always around. We were a tight-knit extended family that spent a lot of time together.
That day, when I got home and went to wash up, I found a bloody pair of panties that had been left in the wash basin by my brother’s live-in girlfriend, whom I couldn’t stand. I showed this to my stepfather, who was outraged and it just fueled the whole conversation about letting people know there things were going to change, blah, blah, blah.
And we drank…
Towards the end of my drinking, I became what’s called an “ugly drunk.” I could get confrontational and say and do and say spiteful, hurtful things, and start shit, and that day was no different. By the time the rest of the family showed up, both Vincent and I were well into a quart of Bacardi and I was in rare form. Before the night was over, my brother and I almost came to blows (he took exception to me calling his girlfriend a pig), and Vincent argued with moms. Finally, my mother threw me out of the house because, “ I was acting like a garbage can.” Actually, she tried drop-kicking me but I was too fast for her. I don’t know where she found the strength, but she picked up this huge potted plant and threw it at me, barely missing my head.
I went to my sister’s house which was nearby in the same sub-division and started talkin’ shit there until, mercifully, I went to sleep under my brother-in-law’s car in the garage. No one knew I was there.
I am awakened by a cousin. “We’ve been looking for you, Eddie! Something terrible has happened! It’s Vincent! Hurry!”
I wake up thinking there’s been a fight or major argument but I’m completely unprepared when I see my mother’s eyes -- I see it all in her eyes and I’m wrenched into sobriety. My mother only manages to say, “Oh Eddie… ” or something like that. Nothing prepares me for the next time I see my dear Vincent, an incongruously neat bullet hole in his temple. I scream out in denial because I can’t accept this -- this can’t be... And I hold his head in my hands and beg him to wake up.
Outside the hospital, my brother challenges me yelling out, “It’s your fault! If you wouldn’t have been startin’ your shit this would’ve never happened… ” And he goes on a harangue for what seems to me too long and all I can do is stay quiet. And every word is like a knife into the very heart of me. When I try to form the words, nothing comes out, I have nothing, I’m empty inside, as if the very life force of me has been sucked out.
The details are hazy, but I remember someone trying to wake me up. I thought it was Vincent. He kept calling for me to wake up and he tried to take my arm, but I shook it off, telling him to leave me alone. I’ll never be sure if this really happened because I was so drunk. Was I dreaming? Was it really Vincent trying to wake me up and telling me he wanted to talk to me, or did I make the whole thing up? I don’t know…
All I know is that sometime in the night one of my cousins found me and told me to get up quick because something terrible had happened. I looked at my cousin and she saw my anger and said, “Get up, Eddie, Vincent shot himself.” I’ll never forget those words.
They rushed me to the hospital and the last time I saw Vincent he was already dead. A part of my mind couldn’t wrap itself around that. There was my mother crying and everybody else and there was Vincent dead, having shot himself in the head in a drunken stupor/ rage. What’s worse, he did it in front of my youngest brother, his son Vinnie, who was maybe 5-6-years-old. He locked himself and my little brother in his car and blew his brains away.
At the hospital, it got ugly. My brother confronted me and told me that it was my fault because I had gotten drunk and instigated a series of events that ended tragically. Vincent wouldn’t have shot himself if it weren’t for me, he said. And I looked around and while the rest of my family didn’t say it outright, no one disputed it either. I jumped at my brother, the rage welling up in me was uncontainable.
Looking back, I can’t blame my brother. Our lives were irrevocably, senselessly changed that day, and it was something unfathomable, it was impossible to make any sense of it. I know that in my own heart I also felt Vincent’s death -- it was my fault.
They say that all suicides are accompanied by a psychological phenomenon known as psychache. Psychache refers to the pain, anguish, and psychological hurt in the psyche, the mind. Truth is, Vincent had attempted suicide before, but was unsuccessful. Sometimes when he drank, he would lose it completely. There were demons inside of Vincent -- who knows what lurked in his mind? What traumas he harbored? And while things weren’t all that smooth, he was experiencing the most success ever.
But I took my brother’s words to heart and I couldn’t forgive myself for Vincent’s death. From where I stood, I killed him. I created the circumstances leading to his suicide by fighting and inciting Vincent. Vincent’s actions that night almost destroyed my family; the repercussions would be felt for years. It was my fault as surely as if I had put that gun to his head.
Tragically, suicide is not as uncommon as we think. Within the United States, suicide ranks as the eleventh leading cause of death among the general population, the second leading cause of death among 25-34 year olds, and is the third leading cause of death among 15-24 year olds. Of the 240,000 annual suicide attempts, most do not end in death and despite the frequency of suicide, there is a huge social stigma attached to it.
I left Houston as soon as I could, returning to New York and distancing myself as much as I could from my family. I was unable to face the hurt, the destruction, but no matter how much I ran, I lived with that guilt in my heart for so many years. I can honestly say that Vincent’s suicide marked the beginning of my personal descent into hell. For many years after, I became more and more self-destructive, gradually surrendering to my dark side, throwing myself into an addiction that knew no satisfaction. And whenever I thought about changing, or doing something to save myself, my guilt was there, something I could flagellate myself with, ensuring that I would never feel worthy of some measure of sanity, some peace of mind.
I like to say that feeling fucked up is habit-forming, and it is -- you can rewire your brain for misery if you feel fucked up long enough. I couldn’t change in part because I didn’t feel worthy. I was unworthy in all areas of my life. I was a failure as a father, as a son, a lover, a brother, I was someone who never fulfilled his potential -- all these things drove me and my addiction. Most of all, I felt so guilty for my mother, who suffered so much.
Guilt is a completely different thing than remorse. In our culture, “guilty” is a verdict hammered out by a judge in court. And if no one else punishes us, we look to punish ourselves, in some way or another. Guilt for me meant punishment deep inside my psyche. It created in me my own psychache.
Today I know that Vincent’s suicide wasn’t my fault, but it took me a long time to get here. I also had a lot of support and did a lot of “inner” work therapeutically and otherwise. And still I almost didn’t make it. I too attempted suicide once and when that failed, I tried to get others to do it for me. But I’m here today, and I can celebrate my birthday and not be angry with Vincent for taking what I thought was the easy way out. For so long, I was so angry with Vincent. How could he do such a thing? How could he leave us? I still miss Vincent, and today I still love him…
Today, I know I can never really know why Vincent did what he did. Today, I try to honor Vincent’s memory by remembering all the good he did while he was here: his selflessness, his compassion, his commitment to providing for us -- five children, four of whom weren’t even his own.
Vincent always encouraged me to use my intelligence. He would take me to his co-workers when I was a child and announce, “This is my son and he’s real smart. Ask him any question -- go ahead.” LOL! It was a lot of pressure and I hated it when he did that, but nine times out of ten, I would get the answer right and Vincent would beam with pride. He paid for my cherished encyclopedia Britannica because, although he never had a formal education himself, he understood my intellectual curiosity needed to be nurtured. My greatest hope is that he really understood what he meant to me -- to all of us.
I guess the most difficult part of my journey was convincing myself that I deserved forgiveness and absolution. For so many years I lived with this crippling guilt. Then one day, I realized that if I wanted live, I would have to let go of the guilt -- forever. That was the day I broke out of my inner prison.