Atheism Saved My Life

I was trying for months to think of a better way to begin this but the concise truth of what I’m about to compose just feels right.

Atheism saved my life, for had I been a religious person my life would have been over one year ago.

Unbeknownst to me, I have battled anxiety and depression for most of my 39 years. I had known something was not quite right and but thought I could control it. I tried St John’s Wort to calm my emotions, but found little help. I used Marijuana laced cigarettes helped me sleep when the insomnia dragged on into its fourth or fifth days. Although I had always enjoyed a beer or two after my evening shifts at my work, my alcohol usage became more prevalent about 8 years ago. Two beers became four or five; if I could fit them in before last call at whatever pub I had taken refuge for the night. As time went on, the beers were joined by shots and in the two or so hours I before closing time I’d have seven or eight drinks. When the casino opened in town I’d go there after the pub rather than going home because they served until 2am. It also became a place for me to indulge my urge to gamble, some nights blowing six or seven hundred dollars on slot machines.  All of this served to add to my stresses for when the next morning would inevitably come, the struggles I tried to dilute with alcohol and gambling would remain leaving my bank account empty again. I would rise for another day and another serving shift with tips creating a stack of bills in my pocket waiting to find a new home in the cash drawer manned by the local bartender.

The intense emotions and overwhelming instability had been shrugged off for many years by those around me as simply me being a man who “wears his heart on his sleeve.” I had thought it was normal to push my emotions down inside, like taking an air mattress and putting all of you weight on it, trying to remove as much air as possible and then putting on the seal and stacking it the corner with the others. This relieves the internal pressure but it creates a different problem. No matter how thin the plastic is and no matter how hard you push there’s always a little air left inside and if you stack them over years and years you will eventually topple over the pile and they will smother you. Trapped under a constricting pile of pain and anger and heartache from which you cannot escape you’ll do anything to make the suffocating feeling end, by any means necessary.

Anything

Five years ago I began to seriously question why I assumed a God existed and began to do real research into the subject. The deeper I dug the more I realized my belief was irrational and I was deluding myself. I had always been a lover of the scientific method and the way it not only helped us understand the universe but created new paths of potential knowledge for every bit of evidence it found. I was no longer a theist or deist as I had always been. I was atheist.

Leaving the security blanket of religion behind had left me more emotionally vulnerable than I had been for 20 years, since my father left my mother. It was at this time I met someone who I hoped would become a special part of my life. I had fallen from the first moment I saw her smile and welcomed her into my life with no wall of protection from being hurt. I was taking a chance for the first time in many years and I pulled my emotions from within and allowed her to see them. Although she was interested in me as well, rather than open up to me she recoiled. I became a plaything to her, a reason for her to feel good about herself as she dragged me along making me think I had a chance to have her in my life.

This went on for two years, until she relented one day admitting she was wrong and was ready to give us a chance. Conversations of dirty innuendos and silly jokes lasted into the wee hours of the morning as our mutual days off approached and our first date loomed, a play in Vancouver. Four days before stage time she cut off contact with me and it took another two to talk to her at all. While I was on my break at work, she told me over Facebook that she couldn’t go through with it and was going to try again with her boyfriend.

I snapped.

I had hit my emotional breaking point and was no longer able to deal with the life around me. The emotions overwhelmed me. Tears flooded my eyes. Breathing became a struggle and tightness gripped my chest like my heart was suddenly encased in solid concrete. For the first time in my life, I stole from my boss. I took an empty glass and one filled with of Diet Coke into the office and opened the bottle of vodka. I poured three quick shots and downed them quickly. I followed those with three more into my Diet Coke and waited 10 minutes for the emotions to settle enough that I could go back into the restaurant and finish my shift.

Like many in my situation, I grasped at anything that might help and found myself taking 7 days off from work, hoping to find some clarity and pull myself out of the cesspool of negativity. Sitting alone in my apartment I searched inside for a reason to have hope, a reason to fight or a reason to live but I could find none. I was fixated on the thought that I’d just missed my last chance at happiness and that there was nothing left for me in this life but the intense fear of the unknown value that answers the question of “What comes next?” was the only thing that stopped me from taking my life right then and there. Had I believed in heaven as a place where the pain and misery of my existence would be stripped away, I’d have gladly killed myself, rolling the dice that I’d go there or to hell. In my mind I was already in hell and it simply couldn’t get worse.

My fear kept me alive.

When the 7 days was up I returned to my life and struggled for two and a half more years, slowly isolating myself from those I cared about at the smallest hint that they would add to the pain I was in. I had reached my limit years before and was desperately treading water now, the waves slapping me in the face as the winds rose and the ocean’s swells got higher and higher.  At the same time I had begun to feel numb about the world around me. Atrocities in other nations simply didn’t matter to me anymore. I’d begun to lose my empathy for those unlucky enough to have been born in a place where pain and suffering on a real level were simply a day to day fact of life.

I began reading and studying the thoughts of men like Hitchens, Dawkins, and Dillahunty looking for a flaw in the line of thought where I could squeeze in a God. I was still actively open to the idea of a God; in fact, I was hoping I’d find one. It would give me a reason to account for why I’d been suffering for so long and the knowledge that one day it would end. And, if it came to the point I couldn’t take it anymore, it could provide me succor with a reason to hope for a better life after this one.

By the early months of 2012, I had let my health and hygiene deteriorate drastically. Although I had been overweight most of my life my weight ballooned to over 300 pounds. Psoriasis covered 80% of my body and my teeth were literally falling out. I was living in an apartment with garbage stacked 3 feet high in places, sleeping on the floor of my living room because I simply could no longer enter the bedroom to reach my bed. I left my apartment only to go grocery shopping, to my job of 13 years—which felt like more of a home than my own —and to attend Vancouver Canucks hockey games which had become my last vestige of joy.

When March came, an incident with a customer at my work yelling at me and insulting me proved itself to be the last straw. That night, as I tendered my resignation, I made my final decision to end my life. Oblivion was now preferable to existence. I still felt a loyalty to my boss of 13 years and gave him months to find a replacement for me; I had a managerial role and couldn’t leave him hanging. It also allowed me to make plans. After my work ended, I planned a “Bucket List Summer.” I told everyone around me I was going to see everyone I hadn’t made time for in the past and do things I’d always wanted to do. I organized a night out at karaoke to “celebrate my newfound freedom” where I invited all my coworkers and friends, even the ones I had pushed away in the past, trying to see them one last time before fall came: Before I carried out my plan to end my life.

Of the more than 50 people I had invited and 20 that said they’d be there, 2 coworkers showed up and 1 friend. Only my sister had let me know she couldn’t make it due to an illness. The fact that almost none of the most important people in my life wanted to see me, or even thought enough to cancel, reinforced my perception that no one really cared about me. I deleted people on Facebook left, right and center, including my five closest friends since high school that had become very uneasy with my atheism. Better to cut them out before they had the chance to hurt me again or force them to have to put up with me ever again.

That night I found myself lying on the floor in the fetal position, wailing and begging that if there was a God to somehow show me he was there. I’d have taken anything that occurred that night to have been a sign from above that I was not as alone as I feared, that someone loved me and cared about how bad I felt inside. I wanted the pain to end so badly that I was willing to suspend logic and belief. I was ready to give myself over to whatever higher power there was. I had done what every Christian says you need to do to truly find God. I was without pride. I was without apprehension. I was on the ground, left prostrate by my grief, praying with all the fight I had left within. I laid there for hours and pleaded.

But all I felt was the emptiness, the vacuum of my own mind caving in on itself.

After that night, I began to get comfortable with my approaching death. I chose songs to listen to on my last night. Sarah McLachlan’s “Fumbling Towards Ecstasy”, John Murphy’s “Adagio”, “You Run Away” by the Barenaked Ladies, and a folk song from an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation. I decided on the bottle of wine I’d drink that night, a favorite from the 2011 wine tour with my brother, a rare memory of pure happiness. I wrote letters for people I wanted to say goodbye to and cryptic Facebook messages were sent to others that would only make real sense after I was gone.

Just before I left for my brother’s home on the Sunshine Coast of B.C., I ran across an ad on a website that asked simply, “Do you have a constant problem with dry mouth?” It was something I’d dealt with for years but had just gotten used to. That question led me to a website called MindCheck. It had been set up in the wake of ex-Vancouver Canuck player Rick Rypien’s suicide after battling depression and mental illness for years.

I ignored the question and went to my brother’s. Being there provided me with a true release from the built up emotions. In the sun of a forest bordered back yard, I found a place where there was no stress, and for the first couple of weeks I felt re-energized; but you can’t run away from your emotions. They will find you, and when they do it’s like a sledgehammer to the chest. The anxiety began to return. Disagreements with my sister-in-law and brotherly ribbing from my brother became inflated; in my mind, they were all-out screaming matches and the same kind of bullying I had endured during high school. One day I found myself staying in the guest house, unwilling to leave for the entire day. I was unable find the will to move, and a feeling of numbness had taken over my body. My mind finally decided to disconnect from the final thing it was attached to, my body.

I chose the date. October 1st. I’d be able to see the season finale of a new show I’d begun watching and I’d be able to watch a final Canucks game on TV as well.

I soon returned home and began to spend even more time alone in my apartment, surrounded by the filth I thought I deserved. I began to give away things I knew I’d never need. Golf clubs, books, DVD’s were offered and accepted by the few people left in my life. My apartment was now infested with moths, feeding on the snowfield of dead skin that had accumulated from my psoriasis. I showered and shaved only when absolutely necessary and my weight had climbed to over 310 pounds. No one called me. No one texted me. No one invited me out for coffee. My mother called me once a week or so to see how I was doing. I got off the phone as soon as I could because I was sure she was only calling out of some motherly obligation

September arrived and I finalized my budget for the month. I had a few hundred dollars after paying my rent for the month and I made sure I could have one or two nights of pizza and plenty of alcohol for my last 30 days. I finalized a will with requests that my ashes go to two places. The bulk was to be spread within the cattails of Great White Lake near Sorrento BC where two sets of aunts and uncles lived when I was young and had become a place holding my most cherished memories of youth. The rest, only a small vial, was to be snuck into Rogers Arena and hidden somewhere that wouldn’t be found for a little while, so I could be there for a few more hockey games, since they were my favorite memories of time with friends and family as an adult.

I also made it very clear that there was to be no religious element whatsoever to any memorial my family decided they needed, to help say goodbye. In my weakest moments I had turned to the place where so many before me had found comfort and I found none. Years before, when I still believed, I had been taught that I had a hole built into me that required the love of God to fill it, to give hope and meaning to my life. As I looked back I realized that the hole really did exist but that there was no God to find a home there. Meaning and hope were things I could only dream of.

My hole was filled with pain. It was filled with anger. It was filled with hatred, suffering, anguish and fear, a fear so powerful that it became both the reason I could no longer exist and the only thing that kept me alive. It had become a sword upon which my soul sat, balanced for many years. But as the emotions became heavier, the fear began to slice me in two and only the tough sinews of guilt were keeping me together. I knew that my suicide would hurt anyone that still cared for me but every drink of alcohol was dissolving that worry and soon the guilt wouldn’t be strong enough to prevent the blade from bisecting me.

As the NHL preseason approached, the Canucks began to promote the MindCheck website again. On a lark I took the tests there, designed to assess my mental status. I found myself with a score of 37/40 for depression, where high numbers are indicative of a problem. I did the same with the anxiety and social anxiety tests. Once again, I nearly topped out the scale on both. At that moment I simply thought it wasn’t a huge surprise that I’d scored so high. I knew how I felt and it took weeks before I realized that the website wasn’t there to confirm how badly I was feeling and coping. It was there, yelling at me, trying to make me understand something that I had suspected for years but never wanted to admit. I had a mental illness. Call it depression or anxiety or whatever, I simply wasn’t healthy in the head.

Sadly, that still wasn’t enough to make me seek help. I knew there was something wrong, but I was also sure I didn’t deserve to be better. I was an embarrassment to my family; worse than that, I was a failure at life and hadn’t lived up to any of the potential my considerable intellect had bestowed upon me. I was a shell of a human being, unworthy of aid, pity, or health. I deserved to feel the way I felt each morning. The pain inside was a constant reminder of what I could have done with my life had I followed through on just one of my lofty ambitions.

As the end of September approached the guilt I was feeling had gone, replaced with a clear conscience knowing that I was doing the right thing. There was no more second guessing and no more doubt. I was removing myself from the equation and letting everyone live their lives without the anchor that was me holding them back. Old friends that were no longer friends would be glad I was gone. My family would no longer have to worry about me finding love and getting married. I would simply be gone; like I never existed.

I began to finalize my method. I had in my kitchen bottles Advil and Tylenol, 100 pills in each. I checked to ensure that the pills with a bottle or two of red wine would be enough to complete my goal. Shocked I found that overdoses of those medications seldom lead to quick death and that they instead lead to days of unbearable cramping and uncontrollable internal bleeding. I decided the best way would be the simple way. I sharpened my best chef’s knife and put it beside two bottles of wine on the edge of my bathtub. I’d heard enough stories about failed suicide attempts to know that slitting the wrists doesn’t get it done and that vertical slices following the tendons from the wrist toward the elbow worked far better. I also knew that living alone ensured me a certain amount of time, enough  to bleed out before my landlord would check his mail in the morning, finding the letter I had written telling him what I had done and giving him my brother’s phone number to call.

It was now September 30th, my last day, and I was to attend a lunch of sushi with my family as a late celebration of my nephew’s 20th birthday. I mustered the energy needed to leave my apartment one last time and went out the door.

We had been to the restaurant before, as it was next to my mother’s apartment block and her arthritis sometimes made proximity more important than quality. My nephew was on my right; half of his literally bleach blonde hairs struggling to wrestle the others around them into submission, with a smile on his face that can only be explained by the naiveté of the twenty year old mind. He sat silently studying his phone, searching for a concert he could buy tickets for using the Ticketmaster gift cards he had just received from his grandmother and absent uncle. I hadn’t gone in on the price of the tickets as I had twenty dollars to my name and still had to cover the cost of the veggie tempura I was half finished.

Across the table sat my sister. She was happy, truly happy, for the first time in her life and at her side was the boyfriend that helped her this way. She had finally conquered the past and she was allowing herself to live in the present, a goal which I had given up on years before. Her domination of it made me both glad and envious. Her boyfriend ordered his third plate so she mocked him. He retorted in such a way that only people in love can, embracing the things that infuriate each other. They smiled at each other.

At my left side sat my mother. At seventy, she is a strange mix of strength and fear. But this confluence creates an endearing soul that others enjoy being around. She smiled at me the way mothers do just happy to have me near and hear what was going on in my life. I rehashed the same old lies that made my life seem to be anything but what it was. Tales of a trip to Scotland in the new year and a false smile satisfy her need to know that I am ok.

Sitting there amongst the people that I loved I began to doubt my decision for the first time in months. Could I really justify the possible pain I would cause these people by ending my life only 8 hours from now? If even one of them felt a little bit towards me the way they say they did, they’d likely live the rest of their lives, the only one they’ll get, with a feeling of guilt like no other. There would be no parole from the prison of emotion I was about to sentence them to.

I said my goodbyes and returned home. I told myself that I would not feel the guilt after I was done, but as the time got closed in I was once again overwhelmed with fear.  This time it was not of death, the afterlife, God, Satan, Heaven, or Hell, but instead with fear that I would create a situation where any of them could begin down this path. The thought that this act could lead them in the direction of this dark place I embodied, one that I hated so much that I would rather blink into nothingness than enjoy the gift I had received on the day I was were born—it was more than I could bear.

I didn’t sleep much that night and I saw the sunrise on October 1st, something that I never thought would happen. I went to my mother’s condo that afternoon when I was sure I’d try one more time. I laid it all on the table, the lies, the pain, the torment, and a piece of who I really was behind the wall I had built up around myself. This was the end of the end and the beginning of the beginning. I have gotten help and am now medicated. I have lost nearly 50 pounds.

As I look back, I realize that there is hope and meaning in a world without a God and I’d even go so far as to say that there is far more, for if this is the only life we get it becomes infinitely more valuable that the one proposed by most religions. In the theists mind this is just a test, a warm up for what is to come. It’s like the pregame skate before a hockey game. The players, the pucks, the ice and the nets are all there but what happens is completely irrelevant to the way the game itself will play out. From my viewpoint we’re already in the game and every decision, every pass and every shot matters to me, the other players and those watching. I have the power to control my own little part of what happens to my team and if we all skate hard and take care of one another, we’ll make the game better for everyone. Small changes can have an enormous influence on the outcome of the game and I’d rather be the player that helps my teammates play better than the player that sits in front of the net waiting for the chance to score.

But the biggest change in my life is taking one step in front of the other as I try to take control of the critical voice inside my head, the one that lied to me and filled me with venom for so many years. I deserve to be happy. I am worthy of the dignity I desire. I am no longer the person that the surface of my mind tries to be.  Each day I tear down another piece of the wall around who I truly am inside, catching the occasional glimpse of the emotional, sensitive, loving, caring man I hoped was there for so many years. One day he’ll escape and then the next battle will begin.

The lifelong battle to keep the wall down.

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