The following is the seventh excerpt from my forthcoming memoir, The 10 Minute Time Machine – a story of wreckage, renewal, and redemption. Stay tuned in the coming weeks for more. (Or take a gander back at previous entries!)
Why the title, “The 10 Minute Time Machine”?
On the morning that changed everything, there was about a ten minute space of time where I was left alone, sitting on the couch in my living room staring out the window at a future that seemed anything but certain. I didn’t know if I had ten minutes left, let alone days, months, or years. While it’s not entirely accurate for me to say now that I had been scared straight, I was staring down the barrel of a life I wasn’t entirely sure I wanted (I had long been leaning towards wanting out), with no idea what the next few minutes or hours of my life held. All I knew – cliché though it may sound – was that everything was about to change, one way or another. That’s often hyperbole when people say it. But at that moment, there was nothing about my life I could take as granted.
I’ve felt daunted by situations and circumstances at various times in my life. But nothing quite compared to those ten minutes, where beyond confusion and heartache and despair and uncertainty, I was able to surmise life as I had known it for nearly thirty-five years was about to irrevocably change. Other moments of transformation have usually involved degrees of change – a minor adjustment here or there. Even “life events” like having kids, or getting married, or changing careers – while serious changes in trajectory – did not comparatively feel like outright, diametric course corrections. They felt like additions to an existing structure, of building up and building out. This was collapse. This was demolition. Not just to the foundations, with the intent of building a similar – but this time structurally sound – edifice on top. This was an entire deconstruction of what was, what had always been, and breaking earth on entirely new ground.
I didn’t know if I was going to have any say in where that was. I had no clue what place or in what direction that might look like. I was scared at the thought of losing my life, both figuratively and literally. I was scared of not losing it, either. I was even more frightened of the prospect that something had snapped, internally, and that I might never bounce back. That I might remain a prisoner in my own mind, unable to express thought or feeling… unable to make sense of it even for myself. Fragments of coherent thought mixed with insanity and surrealism, leaving me unable to discern the true from the imagined.
In those first twenty-four hours, that turned out to be one of the most trying aspects; I had all these memories, but couldn’t distinguish what had actually happened from what I might have hallucinated or dreamt. The distinction remained as elusive as dreams after waking, while I mentally searched and attempted to piece timelines and actual events together.
To say I was consistently losing trains of thought would be generous; it would suggest I was able to retain whole thoughts and subsequent conclusions together. I’d lose where I was and what had happened only a fraction of the way through a thought. It involved extreme concentration in trying to follow thought paths (that made no sense), in an effort to get back to whatever original idea sparked the mental maze I’d find myself in – if I could get back to where I started it at all. More often than not I’d end up with no idea, and give up out of frustration.
We’ve all had that experience of walking into a room and having no idea what brought us there in the first place, save for knowing we came there with a purpose, a legitimate intent. Or the sensation of trying to meditate and focus on the breath, losing that concentration only to realize it an imperceptible amount of time later, and attempt to rein it back in. That was my brain, but magnified with an intensity of jumping to light speed, or being careened around on one of those spinning amusement park rides intended to send one’s vestibular system into disarray. I couldn’t track conversations, much less contribute to them. I’d hear myself utter a sentence out loud that started perfectly sensible, but turned incoherent partway through. I could apologize for the inanity of it all, but I couldn’t control it. I couldn’t make sense of it for myself, let alone for someone else.
What if I remained that way? What if, after twenty years of eating away brain and bodily function with a bombardment of chemicals and poisons, something had finally broken, irrevocably? Something that wouldn’t heal with any amount of detoxification or rehabilitation? What if I had manually damaged my body to a point similar to the state of my grandmother – stricken with an aggressive neurodegenerative disease – where she was unable to communicate verbally or physically, as we watched her knowing there was a perfectly intact mind behind those eyes? Or my grandfather, where the mind wasn’t intact but the body remained? That, to me, was a fate far worse than death. “Shakespeare of the Psych Ward” flashed through my mind (not that I had ever likened myself to anything resembling the brilliant playwright). Yet this idea of an active mind and spirit, trapped behind damage inflicted by too many nights seeking to get altered, followed by too many years seeking to bow out altogether.
Ten minutes, replaying a lifetime, where I knew everything was about to be different, but couldn’t conceptualize what “different” meant, or looked like. What would become of my mind? My body? My children? My home? My finances? My ability to govern my own affairs? I assumed the worst; that I would never physically or mentally bounce back from whatever had imploded internally during the previous twenty-four hours.
I imagined being declared incapacitated and unable to manage my own circumstances. My parents appointed guardians with power of attorney over the tatters of what used to be my life. Access to my children would forever be supervised with me never having a clue of how to possibly guide or care for another human being, clearly unable to do so for myself. For them, the thought of visitation with their father being nothing more than a burden and source of anguish. The thought of working again, socializing, creation or growth… all lost, due to a brain that would never fire properly on its synapses again.
Trapped. Redundant. A burden. A joke. A cautionary tale about the dangers of substance abuse, and of wasted potential. A stereotype. A cliché. Veritable and visible proof of embarrassment for anyone who had ever dared – or was now forced – to love me.
It was the most daunting ten minutes of my life. Worse even than the days and conversations that followed, where I was without choice but admitting to the previously inadmissible. It was certainly the most fear-filled ten minutes of my life. It was by far the worst ten minutes.
As weeks and months passed from that incomparably pivotal – and yet oh so tiny – block of time, and as it became clear I was not only going to be afforded the chance to pick up the pieces, but begin building anew, a question fascinated and occupied many a moment of reflection. As life began to shift, as I started to realize I had somehow dodged a (life or) death sentence, I thought about those ten minutes often. What would I say – this guy today, living a life beyond his dreams after desperately wanting to give up life itself – if I was able to travel back in time to that couch, to those ten minutes?
Initially, I thought it would be about reassurance – this notion of putting a hand on a trembling shoulder and saying something like “I know this feels like the end – if not literally, then metaphorically – but cliché as it may sound, my friend, it is actually a (true) beginning. You’re about to be launched into a life you had stopped dreaming possible.” But as the years have progressed, I haven’t been as certain. I know the me-back-then wouldn’t have believed such a thing anyway – he would, at best, laugh me out of the room. More likely, at worst, he would tell me to fuck off with any platitudes.
And so I’ve been left to wonder… what might have been the words I would have needed then? Or if not things to hear, then what – had I possessed any powers of articulation and coherence – would me-back-then have wanted to say to a listening ear? What did I need? What might have made a difference?
I recognize it’s all moot, of course, as no conversation was needed to get me to where I am now. No words were apt to make a difference anyway. The path needed to be forged regardless, with or without a map, or even signposts along the way. Yet the thought continues to fascinate, the idea intrigues. The wish to travel back to those ten minutes, look into the eyes of that broken soul with these that have been healed, been blessed, been opened anew, and say “Hold on, friend. I’ve got you. A whole community of people – and forces – you think you’ve let down, you think you don’t deserve, has got you. And I can’t wait to show you what comes next.”
Thanks for dropping by, Dear Reader! Please feel free to follow along as I continue to post excerpts from this, and my novel Of Dreams & Angels. And posts on other random thoughts/experiences that come along. Glad to have you here!