*Retold with permission
I’m not bringing this stuff up because I’m proud of it, or because I think telling you about it is somehow going to explain away my actions. I’m telling you these things because they’re part of who I am. And as much as I may be ashamed by some of this, as much as some people may be shocked or feel uncomfortable, they need to hear it, too. This period, more than any other time in my life, served to shape who I am. If they don’t like it, that’s their business. You don’t select your favorite parts of your friends and claim those. No, you either claim the entire friend, or you choose not to. That’s just how it works.
When I got back [from Iraq] and went home, I was completely separated from all my buddies in the Marines and basically alone. I started reconnecting with old highschool and college friends, but it didn’t go very well. We hardly had anything in common anymore, for starters. They really didn’t know what to say to me, and I actually really didn’t know what to say to them, either. I was different from them, and I kept thinking about Iraq constantly.
I’d think about everything I saw over there, the death, the violence, the people I shot and the friends of mine who were shot, and I was angry. I think most guys are when they first come back. Some get stuck in it. I was simultaneously angry, grieved for my brothers, missed Iraq, hated Iraq, and felt wholly alone back in the states. Everything was different, and everything was gone. I thought about suicide a lot.
When I first started drinking, it wasn’t much. Mostly just hang out with a few highschool and college friends and grab a drink or two at the bar, and there wasn’t anything wrong with that, really. But I didn’t stay there. The anger was starting to permeate me.
I was angry at God and angry about what happened to me. I was angry about Iraq and everything that went wrong. The brothers I lost, too. And I blamed it all on God. I can recall a bunch of times I just shook my fist and cursed at Him. I wanted to know why He let it all happen. I probably told Him I hated Him. I didn’t like who I was and didn’t like my circumstances and feeling alone. So, I drank more.
At first I would just go out and get drunk in bars, maybe alone or with friends, but then there came a point where that wasn’t enough. I started looking for women to sleep with. I didn’t give any regard to them, even their names, their looks, or my safety. I just wanted to get laid. The alcohol gave me courage and numbed my morals until I didn’t have any at all. I told myself it was fun.
And even that became insufficient. On top of sleeping around, I started adding in drugs, gambling, and occasionally violence. It wasn’t uncommon for me to throw down $50 on the roulette wheel, take my winnings and go buy an 8-ball, do a couple lines in the bathroom, and then go get drunk and look for women. There were mornings when I woke up and had no idea where I was and who the women were next to me. Sometimes, it was more than one woman at a time. Another time, it was a married woman. For a while I convinced myself that it evidence of my sexual prowess, but that satisfaction didn’t last. I threw more things into the mix.
I met a veteran who was just as much a wreck as I was, and he introduced me to heroin, but I only tried it once. I usually just stuck with coke. Then I’d go find hookers or other girls, drink myself into a coma, and do it all again the next day. When I look back on it, I can’t figure out how I kept a job and a house, and how on earth I didn’t get arrested.
As much as I thought I was having fun, or as much as I at least told myself I was, I wasn’t at all. I hooked up with a woman who was 12 years older than me and we’d just get high and sleep together. I got into an actual relationship with a girl for a little while, but she was bulimic, cut herself, and did a lot of drugs, too. I also verbally abused her and then she cheated on me several times. Obviously, that didn’t last very long. I was totally miserable.
The violence is probably the part I’m most ashamed of, since that was when I didn’t just hurt myself, but I hurt other people, too. I’d go out looking for a fight, and usually I’d find them. This city is a rough place, and it’s not hard to piss off the wrong person. I was trying to, too, which made it even easier. I remember I once threw some guy into the hood of his car, denting it pretty badly. There were other fights, too.
I’d sit at home by myself, drink an entire case of beer, and watch the combat scenes in war movies – all with a loaded gun sitting next to me on the couch. Sometimes I’d just sit there and cry. Other times I played Russian roulette with the pistol. Once, when I was really drunk, I loaded my rifle, cocked it, and put the barrel in my mouth. The last thing I remember was reaching up with my toe to pull the trigger. That’s when I passed out. I think that, despite my best efforts, God had divinely appointed me to live. But I didn’t want to. I was afraid to. I was living in a state of slow and deliberate suicide.
I started to crack eventually. One night I did a whole 8-ball of cocaine and my heart started racing and I thought I was going to have a heart attack. I was barely conscious, but I remember hearing the EMT say, “we gotta get this guy to the ER. He might not make it.”
As they worked on me, I started thinking about my family, and the few friends I had that truly loved me. I started thinking that this was how they were going to bury me. Veteran dies from overdose. And it wasn’t how I wanted to go. But living still scared me. I could stare down a barrel of an AK-47 or endure a firefight without fear, but I was afraid to look at myself. I decided to stop doing drugs.
Even though I was still drinking heavily and sleeping around, I weaned myself off of drugs, but even that was difficult. I craved the sense of euphoria and the feeling of elation. Sometimes, I’d get drunk and walk around town holding a gun in my pocket. If somebody so much as looked at me wrong or said something to me, I’d pull it out and threaten to kill them. I felt the familiar thrill and I felt powerful again, but in reality I wasn’t. I was still a mess. Depression was setting in. I was petrified of examining myself.
The VA absolutely useless at getting me any help, so I eventually started to see a private therapist, and she turned out to be amazing. I’d go once a week and she’d listen. Sometimes I’d just cry like a child, and she’d wrap her arm around me and listen. Other times, she’d coax the anger out of me and help me talk about it.
I still drank heavily during all this, but I was starting to reach a point where I knew I couldn’t. I flipped my truck four times one night and fled the scene. I’d go out and randomly fire guns in the city. Iraq wasn’t a death wish; it was a purpose. But this; it was death wish. I had to take an inventory of myself, as terrifying as it was. If I didn’t run from a firefight, then I wouldn’t run from this. This was harder, but I couldn’t run.
I kept going to my therapist, and started exercising again, connected with other like-minded veterans. These three things, above anything else, were what helped me survive that time in my life. In fact, they’re still helping me today. And I did other things. For a little while, I distanced myself from the crowd where I was the most tempted. I got rid of my TV for a time, too.
The self-examination was extremely difficult, to say the least. It’s like looking in a mirror and hating what you see staring back at you. But I learned something. That was life without God. And I couldn’t do it anymore, so I called out to Him and He answered. Peace came from self-acceptance, which came only from His acceptance.
Iraq wasn’t the biggest battle for me at all. Coming home was my D-day, and I was charging towards a premature death. I still loved my country, but for some time my hatred for myself had overshadowed it.
None of this is comfortably far behind me. It’s still fresh. While I rarely drink now and I don’t sleep around at all or use any drugs, the potential is still there. That’s where I’ll end up if I walk away from God again. I am a great man, but I can do horrible things.
And I’m still learning, too. Great lessons. I actually don’t regret anything that happened. I think it had to. I needed to awaken. Yes, I did terrible things to myself and sometimes to others, but I’ve sought forgiveness and received it. I’m glad it happened because I needed to be stripped of myself and discover what was left: a total desperation for God. I’m also happy to have my midlife crisis out of the way with at a young age. I won’t be going through this when I’m forty, because I went through it in my mid-twenties.
I have learned humility in this, because I have learned empathy. How can I judge people now? I can’t. Everything that I would judge people for I have now done myself. I’ve broken every one of the Ten Commandments. I have learned that I am a man now, but only because I finally shattered to pieces and gave everything to God. And now, being no longer a child, I have put away childish things.
I know that some people will read this and be horrified. I might lose friends when they find out. To a degree, I understand. Sometimes, I think back on things I did and I still get physically ill. I make no excuses for it. I’m amazed at my own depravity. Yet I’m also amazed at what manner of miracles God can work in a human life: mine. But if they do run, I have to seriously question their friendship in the first place. What true friend runs when he learns the imperfections of another?
My greatest critics, I am certain, will be those who have not endured what I did. They won’t understand, and in many ways, they’re not even my audience. They cannot fathom the depravity of men because they have never left the comfort of the sidelines. I did. And I stepped out there and made my fair share of mistakes, and now I take ownership of them. I bled out there and at times I was covered in the putrid stench of the underbelly of life. I chose my path, however foolishly, and I led myself into hell. And to me it’s not a pit of flames, but a wall to run through –a wall of honest, painful self examination. I ran into it several times, but with God’s help, I ran through it. He had been tapping on my shoulder for a long time, but apparently He had to punch me in the face – lovingly.
Yet it grows ever distant behind me, and I am increasingly solidified in what I believe and who I am. And it is a far cry from what I once was. This is why I need to tell this story. More than a story, it’s a testimony, and shaped the very core of my being. To know me, you must know this part of me. You must also know how I arrived here: with monumental difficulty. I also know that others have been through this, and perhaps my honesty will embolden them. I don’t judge them. How can I? I have done the very same things. Perhaps their eyes will be opened.
Most importantly I have been awakened. I am winning my war, and I know I’m going to make it. I have seen what I can be in the absence of God. Like I said, I’m a good man, but I can still do horrible things. But I am not what I once was, and that is solely by the grace of God.
Copyright © 2009, Ben Shaw, All Rights Reserved