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Dark Light: A Thanksgiving Parable

Winter in California, decades ago. I’d come back from traveling the world for almost two years after graduate school, with the primary aim of reuniting with my long lost true love. We’d rekindled it all back up via letters, mine from exotic places like Paris and Italy and North Africa, such romantic stuff. Still it took me some time go get home via Africa and Europe and the east coast. When I finally got back to California just before the holidays she spent one strange strained night with me then told me No, it was over, there was somebody else. And that was that; nothing I could do about it. 

The glorious reuniting had been a fantasy, but what a consuming and compelling one. And when that collapsed, some essential part of me shattered too. I spiraled down into what in retrospect could only be called true clinical depression, which really felt like despair, even some form of madness. Within a month I was truly far into a deep dark trench. In retrospect it wasn’t even about heartbreak or “the one that got away” anymore – she was right in her choice, and besides that I deserved it. That was just the trigger. It could have been just about a fairly spoilt young man who’d had a mostly idyllic life to date experiencing his first real setback. But whatever the reason, the future suddenly looked impossible. I was 26, didn’t have much cash left, a few hundred dollars to my name; all I did have was a couple nice UC degrees and an OK to start up another one in nine months, if I wanted. But I didn’t really want to. It all seemed pointless, daunting, unfulfilling, even unlikely that I could go through with it. Not just more schooling, but life itself. And nobody would or could ever want me again. I had brutal insomnia that rendered me feeling psychotic at times and taught me why sleep deprivation has been used as torture. All this and it rained daily, the wettest California winter in memory. Forty days and nights of it once, even, flooding all over the state. I drove aimlessly up and down the grey soggy coast in my VW camper van, crashing on friends’ couches or in the van on city streets or in remote places, sometimes of coastal cliffs I’d always felt were the most beautiful places on the planet. But now I felt like launching off of them into oblivion. I drank too much booze, not for the first time, but now daily, and I didn’t eat much of anything. I felt like I was walking dead.

One gloomy stormy aimless late Southern California afternoon, which happened to be my birthday, having nothing else to do, I went surfing at my hometown spot, Corona del Mar, the “crown of the sea” in Orange County. I wasn’t a great surfer but still had a couple old boards, left in my mom’s garage with my van when I took off traveling. The waves weren’t big or great and the beach and water were deserted but I joylessly rode a few. Then, as the sun sank into the sea behind all the clouds and it quickly grew colder and darker, suddenly I knew what I really should do, what I’d really come there for in fact. 

I pointed the board out towards the horizon and started paddling. I was at least good at this and kept on going and going, into the dark and cold. There were only a couple lights out on the horizon, likely on fishing or other boats. I don’t know how long I paddled but I did get far out to sea, maybe a couple of miles. Eventually I stopped and looked back, and the land was so far back the lights there were gone. Black everywhere, no stars or moon above. I was alone in the darkness, bobbing gently. I sat up on the board there for some time, silent, suffering, starting to shiver, trying to get up some final courage. I knew how to do this. I could unhook my ankle leash, push the board hard away, swim the other way until exhaustion, and that would be that. It would only be a few minutes of real misery and maybe panic. I’d felt something like that before more than once in big surf, stuck underwater. These things happened. In fact I could make my end look more real by quickly standing up on the board, falling down onto it with my head, and even if it didn’t knock me out, the bruise would look like that most common cause of serious surfing injuries and death, head injuries from the hard board itself, when and if they found me. But maybe the fish and sea birds would get to me first. I’d seen bodies pulled from the sea, even done that myself, and it wasn’t pretty, but at that point who cared? Whether my body was found or not, mainly I didn’t want anybody to think I had done this on purpose. There was a small life insurance policy my dad had opened for me at birth, for one thing, to be paid to my mom, and I’d heard they wouldn’t pay if death was intentional. But more important by far, I felt pretty sure that I would leave too much hurt among my family and friends .

And that’s what caught me up: The people I cared about, and who cared about me. My sweet mother most of all, but not only her. Some of them would be devastated whether this was an accident or not. Right now I was sunk into a sad disappointed solitude and deep dark self-obsessed ditch that isolated me from them all, and I figured most everybody would only miss me for a while and move on, but I still knew they cared. I couldn’t hurt them, even if I was no longer any good to anybody. My bottom line had always been to try to not hurt anyone, and I still felt that way even though I’d failed miserably at times. Was that enough? It didn’t feel like it. My heart hurt so much it was a physical pain, all the time. I still sat on the board, and sobbed violently for some time. I was in real trouble. A failure at a young age. Again I thought, might as well go for it. In fact, at this point, it would be cowardly to turn back, even more cowardly than taking this easy way out.

But some little voice said, Don’t be a fool, fool. You’ve likely cheated death many times already with your wild juvenile antics, using up eight of your nine lives by this point already, drunk driving in cars and even helmetless on motorcycles and bikes, jumping off cliffs, bodysurfing monstrous waves, playing with serious drugs, wandering in dangerous places where you had no business, and more. Death will get to you in good time, sooner or later, so why rush it? You’ll get through this. You’ll have a good enough life even if you don’t fully satisfy anybody else, but many of the people you know and care about will be really sad and even mad if you don’t go back to land and live it out. And if you are just tough enough to do that, then someday, maybe not even too long away, you’ll look back at this night and say, Wow, how lucky I was to survive that dark paddle.

So I sighed and sobbed and shook the rain from my head and turned back towards what I newly hoped was the shore and paddled back in, a long slog through cold rain that had started up again, splashing on the ocean surface, me still crying at times, teeth chattering, maybe even already hypothermic, sometimes with my head rested on the board, but the steady exertion might have kept me functioning and I made it. I had to angle back up along the coast once I saw it as the current had carried me southward at least a mile, but I knew these rocks and cliffs like home. I was again lucky there was not much swell as it was truly dark. When I rode a last little wave in the dark on my belly and hit the sand I dropped onto my knees and hands on the cold wet sand, shaking. In the otherwise empty parking lot I found my van, shoved the board under it, stripped off my old wetsuit and stood in the rain for a few minutes, but feeling the fresh drops warmer than the ocean on my skin. I think I laughed, thinking, Escaped another dumb move - if this had been up north you’d be shark food by now. Then I crawled into my beloved van, wrapped my ratty sleeping bag and blankets around my wet self, and lay there like a dead man, stone sober but in no shape to drive anywhere. But not dead, not yet. 

The raindrops on the metal roof were one of my favorite sounds, like a lullaby. So then I must have slept, for soon after dawn the morning beach patrol was knocking on my van, and the officer said he just wanted to know if anybody was inside, and I peeked out at him standing there in the wet grey light and said I was just checking the surf, man, and we both laughed. He shrugged and left, and I laid back again, quiet, listening again to the rain, marveling to be alive at all. Suddenly looking forward to my next big plate of good Mexican food.

Every Thanksgiving since then, decades of them, I’ve thought of that dark night. And in some way everything I’ve done and seen and felt since that night has been a sort of metaphorical gravy, a gift I almost didn’t receive out of my own bout of self-absorption and borderline mental illness. I decided not to be such a spoiled ingrate and to head back up to northern California for more education and training at a minimum and the rest of whatever life brought me and that I could make of it. I knew it would not be easy to really dig myself out of this ditch, but I also knew I would give it my best. I’d stop being too proud and macho to tell my closest people, even my intimidating dad, what kind of state I was in. I resolved also to, if I could avoid it, not do pointless profiteering self-serving work and try to somehow in some ways contribute to lessening suffering and preserving nature in this lifetime, at least, as I’d long felt was crucial and as I’d been taught be reading and great teachers. And by great fortune and coincidence and hard steady but rewarding effort, I’ve done some of that, for decades now. I’ve changed some national and state and local laws for the betterment of people I’ll never know, although once in a while somebody does tell me and that makes it all even more worthwhile. I’ve helped as many friends and patients and strangers as I could, in the ways that seemed best. I’ve had my work published in places from funky artistic rags to leading medical journals. And it’s most often been some form of fun, too. 

So. Since I almost ended it, life has been rich with experience and love and learning and challenges and music and literature and wide vistas and mysteries and yes, more food and drink and stupid fun. I found a lifelong love I hardly expected or likely deserved, becoming part of a sprawling wild extended family. I’ve seen my sister and best friends have families and even been able to joyfully officiate at weddings, and at some memorials, too. I’ve had wonderful times on stages, introducing musical stars from around the world to ecstatic crowds of thousands. And after much time’s passing, that first love of mine and I are now friends. Even the unavoidably painful deaths of my parents and friends have felt like part of the big bargain. My leaving this life on that soggy night would have been so pointless and wasteful. I would have missed so very much. At this late date I know how short our lives really are. I’ve suffered most from those I love dying, including right now when I’ve lost my most beloved dog ever, inseparable with me for a dozen years – but obviously I never would have met that wonderful beast, and so many others, human or not - had I not paddled back in. And they couldn’t know it, but those friends and family of mine saved my life that night.

There have been dark times since then of course but nothing so threatening and all-encompassing as way back then, not even close. Mental illness can be torture. Addiction is just one deceptive way of trying to cope with that. Feeling what that felt like, even for just a short time, gave me some sort of empathy for inner suffering that I likely could have never found in any other way, and gave me at least some of my mission in life. Maybe I even acquired a small slice of hard-won wisdom too. The despair turned out to be, in a strange way, a blessing itself, once I survived it. I was, and am, one of the lucky ones. The world’s indeed going to pieces but I’m still glad to be in it. So yes, I was incalculably fortunate to survive that dark paddle. I didn’t realize it at the time, of course, or for quite some time after, but that darkness was where the light got in.

7 Comments

  1. chuck dunbar November 27, 2020

    Thank you, Steve Heilig, for such a personal, revealing life story, a good fit for Thanksgiving Day. Looking back on this life-changing event of your youth, decades later as an older, wiser man, knowing now what you could not know then, and seeing so clearly what your decision to choose life meant….all that could have been lost. How moving that your thoughts and concerns about those who cared for you and loved you saved your life. Well done, my appreciation to you.

  2. Cynthia Point January 1, 2021

    Oh. Steve I am so sorry you plunged into such depths of despair, and I am so glad you turned your board around, and came back. I am very happy I have had the pleasure of working with you.

    I am retiring in February. Hope we can stay in touch.

    Cynthia

  3. Susan Tillett January 1, 2021

    I’m really glad you paddled back in, Steve! I had a similarly dark night of the soul, took a bottle of pills and woke up in a locked mental hospital at age 19. There were dark things I didn’t think I could face, but it turns out I could and there were more good things…most notably being a mother to wonderful sons, work that matters and a life in Nature’s classroom.

    Telling your story is both brave and important. Thank you for doing so!

  4. Nadine Narita January 1, 2021

    Thank you, Steve, for sharing this courageous and personal piece. The world is a better place with you in it, certainly. I shared it with my son, who was suicidal at age 20 after a break-up. He’s now 30 and although he still struggles with depression, he is a productive and valued software engineer and says he would never contemplate suicide again; he knows now the suffering it would cause his family and friends. I’m glad you are here. Happy 2021!

  5. Randy Blumer January 2, 2021

    Excellent story very articulate with very meaningful
    wisdom love your story I think plenty of us had serious
    heart breaks during those youthful years
    I knew your sister because I was older but I do remember
    you and your from friends from being a CDM local
    myself

    All the best

  6. Catherine Dodd January 3, 2021

    Steve, my 69 year olds brother is in a dark place, lost his beloved dog on Dec 26, his friend and roommate of 20 years has rebooked up with a high school sweetheart and she’s told my brother he needs to move out. He lives on SS and can barely walk. I so hope he finds his way back to shore. He has one friend and me in the world. I’m trying to let go of wanting to control the outcome and just have faith. Thank you for this.

  7. Fran Johns January 3, 2021

    What a dark tale with a bright light at the end. I hate to think how much good would not have happened, for so many dogs & humans both, had you not paddled back in. Thanks for sharing, and here’s to the best of years ahead,

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