The first time was in eighth grade. The little bottles were arranged like soldiers. There were fourteen bottles -- one for every year of my life. I didn’t make that connection then but looking back that seems poetic or foreshadowing.
The little red one I remember the most. It was the exact size and shape of a Good & Plenty candy. Rather than pink, however, it was harlot red with a thin blue line. I wanted to collect them all, but worried I’d be caught, I only stole two. The next few were more inline with my previous experience: white powdery circles that I knew would taste bitter.
I placed my treasure – 33 in total – in a sandwich baggie. Enough? It had to be. This baggie went with me everywhere. In English class, I’d put the plastic treasure chest between my thighs and squeeze each one while Mrs. Darden made fun of me. I’ll show you, I’d think. On the school bus, I’d put my nose inside, breath deep and enjoy the aroma I could not name. While struggling with my homework and my father’s savagery, I’d place a pretty red one between my fingers and roll it around, careful not to crush the tender coating.
The day finally arrived – the day I’d swallow my treasure. I have no idea what precipitated the decision, what final insult I could not survive. I planned to tell no one. My treasure, my secret. Darren saw the bag. He sat next to me in English class. He was funny and kind and skinny and pimply. His blue eyes found mine and he simply asked, “What’s that for?”
I clutched the bag to my chest, shrugged. Even now, I don’t know what Darren thought. Did he think I was planning to become a drug dealer? Did he understand my goal to leave this place? Funny, you know, I was never scared of killing myself. It was just a decision. Not even sophisticated enough to be called a plan. Just a way to have some control. But Darren said the one right – or wrong – thing. “If you throw it away, I won’t tell.” In retrospect, I see that his “telling on me” shouldn’t have mattered. I would not be around to suffer consequences anyway. I was fourteen, of course it mattered. I flushed my treasure away at the next opportunity.
That was the first abyss I remember. I had no way of knowing that I’d spend a lifetime becoming a master pit builder.
Pits of despair are universally understood but individually experienced. Whether these chasms are created due to circumstance or hand-excavated, we all sit in our pits alone. Not alone, exactly. We share the hole with guilt, self-pity, exhaustion and a healthy dose of blame.
Even though each pit is a unique creation, I’ve learned there are some commonalities among pit-dwellers. Pits are dark and the smell of culpability permeates the walls. Tears – yours and others – force mud to ooze between the toes. There is only cold. Wails, even the silent ones, echo off the walls.
Each pit is furnished with two vital pieces of equipment: a shovel and a permanent marker. With the shovel we can dig deeper, making the light at the top smaller and smaller, the climb harder and harder. I’ve carved crypts and rested, I’ve flagellated myself or beat the walls in anger.
With the marker, I use words to prove my need to stay in the abyss longer. I use my creativity and pain to slander individuals or the entire world. Whatever we write on those pit walls, we also chisel into our soul. The words may fade but never disappear – they will be waiting in the next pit.
People see me in my pit. Some pretend they don’t notice the desolation carving wrinkles on my face. Other people rush on past, afraid I’m carrying a contagion. A select few – and these faces I will forget or forgive – throw more dirt in my hole, enjoying my dark reality. Then there are the angels who put in their hand, offering me a chance out. Sadly, these beautiful people are often forgotten.
The shovel and the marker are also tools of rescue and redemption. When I let enough light in, I redesign or reconfigure cruel, hurtful words. Pasts cannot be re-written but they can be reframed. New truths can be constructed, new strengths developed. I can cling to the infallibility that the sun rises every day – just look up -- my hole may be deep and the sunlight narrow, but it is there, it is giving me light.
I met a man yesterday whose wife of 52-years died in her sleep nine months ago. He’s in his pit but he’s using his shovel to create footholds and the light is getting brighter. He’s extending his shovel to those of us who are willing to help pull him out. He’s used his marker in anger for her leaving; for guilt in things not said, promises not kept. But, when he remembers their years together, he adds hearts to her name and memories to each letter. It’s okay to rest in your pit for a season. Sometimes the pit is the best rest you’ll ever have.
I wish I could say I’ve never created another baggie. I have. Oh, it looked different – I no longer need to steal from my mother. But I’ve stood on the edge, both arms extended, wanting so badly to crash into the darkness and take permanent residence. But a version of Darren peers in, extends his hand, and waits on my choice. That’s the thing about pits -- we can stay, we can entrench ourselves or we can climb.
When -- if -- you decide to climb, it will be your muscles that hurt, your heart rate that explodes, your sweat pouring forth. Only you can face the doubt – the doubt in your ability to make the climb, the doubt in your right to leave the pit. Only you can do the work. And, let me be honest, it’s easier to dig pits than it is to ascend the depths.
I alone experience my version of despair. I alone know what I experience when I lose, fail, or suffer. You too have suffered. But you do not suffer like I suffer and I do not suffer like you suffer. You cannot be my strength and I cannot be yours. While you can stay in the bowels as long as you like, when you are ready to leave, only you can put one foot in front of the other.
I went to school with Darren for five more years. We ran in the same circles. He never spoke another word to me. Not one word. He also never told. He could have destroyed me with one juicy piece of gossip. I doubt he thinks of me. I think of him daily and have for 38 years. Without meaning to, he saved me.
There is one more universal element to the pits. We all have them. Look behind you. Do you see the scars on the ground, the newly planted grass, or the unsettled soil? Look ahead. Do you see where shovels sit and wait? Get ready to climb. Build your muscles. There is danger ahead. Look to your left, to your right, look up – hope is there somewhere. Take her to the pits with you.
In April 2012 I had a mental breakdown. The real thing. I have about 36 hours that I don’t remember....