Sunday, May 3, 2009

with a little help from my friends

i have been on facebook for over a year now, but only starting using it last fall. the idea of social networking is somewhat new, and presents its own challenges to people like me, who do poorly with the social interaction thing in the first place. i imagine that most people who read my blog do so on facebook, rather than on the actual blog itself. this post is specifically for that subset of my facebook friends who were a part of mizpah baptist church when i was in my late teens.

i don't really know what other people thought of me, or if anyone knew the turmoil that i struggled with for much of that time. i couldn't hide the fact that i was weird, but i did try to hide the struggle. it may come as a shock to many of my friends to learn that i was really very close to suicide for quite some time then. just before my nineteenth birthday in january 1974, i was ready to close the book on my life.

there were a number of reasons, i suppose, though trying to articulate them now is difficult. it's hard to explain the workings of a teenage mind. the truth is, i just didn't fit in. part of the fun of being on facebook and re-connecting with people that i knew then is reading the group posts about things that happened 'back in the day.' sometimes those same posts only serve to remind me how much i missed out on during that time.

for most of my teens, stuttering ruled my life. no one then had ever heard of asperger's syndrome, though in retrospect i was a classic portrait of the asperger teen. of one thing i am certain, everyone who knew me would agree that i was weird. [i'm still weird, so don't get too caught up in the past tense of the verb.] from my vantage point, however, the stuttering overshadowed the weirdness. it was the root of all evil in my life. the demon that pursued me unrelentingly.

i didn't date when i was in high school. not because i didn't want to, or because my parents wouldn't allow it. the painful truth is that i didn't date in high school because no one that i asked would go out with me. perhaps part of that is a result of me asking the wrong girls. a bigger part simply goes back to that asperger trait of not being able to adequately read other people's feelings. after being shot down in flames a few times, asking someone out gets a little more difficult. it's hard to hear 'i have to wash my hair' as an excuse, though that is so much easier than hearing 'wait a minute. hey ya'll, listen to this... ok, ask me again.' hearing that actually makes hearing 'you're kidding, right?' easy to hear. after a while, trying simply isn't worth the effort.

which brings me to january 1974. i was starting my second semester at francis marion and working part time at sky city. my job was my only social life; not that i dated anyone there, though i would have liked to do so. i was the guy that the girls there would come to with their boyfriend questions. [does anyone else see the irony here?] i desperately wanted someone to want to be with me, but it wasn't happening, and they were asking me relationship questions. [a cruel torture if you think about it.] i blamed it all on my stuttering, which i was sure would be with me for the rest of my life. i was ready to die, and had started looking into ways to accomplish my death without experiencing further pain. all i wanted to do was not hurt any more. i had had enough.

so why am i still here? what happened to pull me back from the edge? my church friends happened, though i am sure that comes as a shock to them. the pianist/choir director at church was a dear saint of god, sylvia strickland. at that time she was organizing the young people at the church into a youth choir. she was insisting that i be a part, though i was more than hesitant. i felt i was too old, since the target group was junior high and high school youth. sylvia was insistent. i had to come to the practice. i was as reticent as she was insistent. the choir was to practice at 6 p.m. on sunday afternoon. i was not going. at 5:50, i still was not going. i agreed, however, to drive my younger brother there, so off we went. my intention was to sit at the back of the church and not participate.

the plan changed as we entered through the swinging doors at the back of the church. mitch went in first and i followed a few steps back. as i entered the sanctuary, what i can only describe as a cheer went up from the twenty-plus young people assembled. shouts of 'yay, robert's here,' rang out. perhaps sylvia had prepared the group in anticipation that i might show up, i don't know. it seemed spontaneous and genuine to me, however, and it came at exactly the right time. for a moment, i felt like a star. i felt, if not adored, at least well-liked.

i can't say that i haven't entertained the notion of a final exit since then, but i don't think i have ever been as close as i was at that time to doing something i would not live to regret. i know several people who have taken their own lives over the years, and, in a sense, i feel i can empathize with them in many respects. one thing of which i am certain, life is not meant to be lived alone, it is meant to be shared. that sunday afternoon at mizpah was a turning point for me. i would not imagine that anyone else remembers that afternoon, which would be fitting. i believe that often the things which touch other people's lives the most are the things which we ourselves forget.

it's been a dozen years since sylvia took her place in glory. i still think of her as someone who acted as a guardian angel. i got an opportunity to stop by her house just before she died and thank her for what she had done, and she had no idea. in all honesty, though, it wasn't just her. everyone who was there that afternoon helped to save my life. i wish i could thank each of them personally, but i don't know all who were there. i know that some of those who were there have already shed this veil of tears. to those who read this, thank you. i leave you with a line from an old beatles tune... i get by with a little help from my friends.

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