A Beacon Of Light While My World Fell Apart
The story behind my profile picture, and an inside look into my early battle with PTSD.
The picture you see above was taken in December of 2014. It is nearly 8 years old and yet, to this day, it is my signature photo. I use it as my profile picture here on Vocal, as well as Instagram and Facebook… and Google/Youtube… pretty much everywhere I have an active presence online. “Back To The Manger” was the name of the play… the annual Christmas play my church puts on every year. That night still stands out as my favorite memory in all of the nearly 25 years I’ve been a part of my church. The photograph itself is a reminder of that night, which served as a beacon of light while at the same time my world was crumbling down all around me.
The beginning of the new adventure, which would end up greatly impacting my life forever, began in January of 2014. I decided to return to the road, after a lengthy absence of many years, as a long-distance truck driver. It was really my second stint at this way of life, after trying it first between 2004 to 2005 and then settling down for a local job driving a cement mixer. I knew (kind of) what I was getting myself into, and I figured that the change in lifestyle and scenery would do a great deal of good as I was beginning to come out of a six month long battle with clinical depression.
As it turned out, it was quite the experience! I braved the elements in snowy northwestern Indiana while I went through a couple weeks of refresher training, a necessary step to complete the hiring process.
I then spent the next two months out on the road with 3 different trainers, all with their own peculiar personalities. There were some pretty rough patches (most notably the time my second trainer left me stranded in the town of Laredo, Texas where I remained stuck for two weeks waiting on my third and final trainer)… but I persevered and graduated to solo driver status at the end of March, truly one of my most satisfying accomplishments ever.
I was thereafter offered, and accepted, a northeastern regional route originating out of Front Royal, Virginia. Only 60 miles from where I was living and a guarantee of every weekend at home. It really was the best possible scenario. Through the next few months, everything mostly went very well and I was tremendously grateful to have been given a second chance at a career I began planning for, way back in 2002. I really enjoyed my weekends at home too!
But, you know… the good times in life, those seasons when you’re riding high and seemingly nothing could go wrong… they don’t go on forever.
Looking back, I wish I could have seen just how quickly things would unravel. I knew already, by early summer, that monumental changes were on the horizon. My parents, who I’d been staying with at the time during my transition to the new lifestyle, put the house that they (and I, for the most part) had lived in since 1992… on the market. Being retired, they were going forward with their long-standing plans of moving to Maine. The house sold in August, and the move officially took place late in the month of September. All my belongings went north with them, but I did not… at least not just then, anyway. Despite having weekends off, I was still very busy during the week… and time to plan for living arrangements in my home state of Virginia were scarce. I knew the big change was coming. I just wished that I could have prepared better. Nothing, however, could have prepared me for what was about to happen in October.
In the middle of the night, during the early morning hours of October 23rd 2014… I was making a routine trip from Front Royal to Boston. There was a steady and heavy rainstorm that appeared to be following me through every leg of the drive, right from the very start. I crossed the Tappanzee Bridge in New York and was beginning to navigate the curvy stretch of Interstate 287 as the highway wound its way towards its eastern end just before the Connecticut state line. The road straightened out a little after a couple miles and it was there that I noticed what appeared to be a vague silhouette of a rather large object in the center of the highway. It was impossible to see clearly what exactly it was, especially through the pouring rain in the middle of the night… but something was telling me I needed to get on the brakes NOW!
As I got closer, I realized it was another tractor trailer that had gone nose first into the ditch and was sideways across the road, blocking the two right lanes. All its lights had been knocked out, as well... rendering it virtually invisible. I was going slow enough at that point and was able to steer around it but as I did… I glanced at my passenger side mirror and saw a pair of smaller headlights, most likely a car or SUV, approaching the scene on the right at a pretty good clip… and heading straight for the broken down truck. I don’t remember the actual impact. The last thing I remember, after passing the scene, were those headlights rapidly disappearing behind the semi that was blocking the road… and the next thing I knew, I was in Connecticut. I don’t remember seeing the impact or even hearing it; all I know is something terrible had happened. It’s as if my mind blocked out the memory. But somehow, I just knew it was horrific.
About two or three weeks later, I had my first nightmare. I was back behind the wheel of the truck and had just crossed the Tappanzee Bridge in a heavy rainstorm. Cruising down 287 at highway speed, I saw the other truck blocking the road… but it was too late. I woke up, just before slamming into the side of the broken down rig. Just a bad dream; I shook it off. But then I kept having that exact same dream, or something very similar, over and over again. I began to lose a significant amount of sleep. Then one morning, as I was reporting back to duty after a weekend off… I got up into the cab and behind the wheel and just sat there silently, shaking, for what seemed like an eternity. Staring out the windshield. Seeing the broken down truck in front of me again on that rainy night in New York. I couldn’t seem to get that image out of my head. I packed up and left the truck parked where it was, checked into a nearby motel, and informed my driver manager I would need to take an immediate leave of absence.
Thanksgiving was fast approaching at this point. I felt all alone, for the first time really in my life. I missed my home. Missed my church. I’d actually been taking my weekends off in New England, as my employer had a drop yard in Massachusetts. There was the thought that maybe I’d settle into a new life, somewhere near Boston or perhaps New Hampshire. Maybe even Maine. I’d gone up to mom and dad’s new place a couple times, but had not spent the night up to this point. I hadn’t even told them what had happened.
It just wasn’t the same. New England was not my home. Something was really out of place, being here in the upper right hand corner of the United States. I’d been feeling this way really ever since the last time I saw my house in Virginia, on the morning of September 22nd. There’s no doubt the intensity of the emotions I had been experiencing magnified the traumatic aftereffects of the crash that happened on that rainy night in New York.
My first extended visit with my folks in their new house on the lake came over the holiday weekend. While I’d seen the house (and the lake) in the daylight hours, this was my first overnight stay. The place was actually quite nice and it was a very picturesque setting… during the day.
The night, however, was such a stark contrast. It was pitch dark, and rather eerie. It was nice to visit, but I wouldn’t want to live there. I felt very much out of place.
I think the singer-songwriter Neil Diamond said it best in his old classic tune “I Am… I Said.”
“Well I’m New York City born and raised,
But now a days I’m lost between two shores.
L.A.’s fine, but it ain’t home.
New York’s home, but it ain’t mine no more…”
Just replace New York with Virginia, and L.A. with Maine… and this is exactly what I was feeling.
And it was a cold feeling. I wanted to go home. And so… I did.
My savings were starting to dwindle, having been out of work for a few weeks now. The continuing nightmares, the sleepless nights, and the anxiety-riddled days didn’t really help either. But I made it home finally, checking into a motel called the Econo Lodge right off the Dumfries exit of I-95 on December 3rd. It was the very first time I’d spent the night in a motel in or near my own home town. Shortly after arriving home, I was asked to fill a somewhat urgent need at my church. Evidently, they were preparing for the annual Christmas play (which would take place on the 14th) and needed a replacement actor for one of the main characters due to some unforeseen circumstances.
My world was really crumbling down all around me at this time. I’d been out of work for nearly a month and my financial state was rapidly deteriorating. I could still see the big truck blocking the roadway. I could still see the car coming that could not possibly have stopped in time. I couldn’t get these images out of my head. I wasn’t sleeping well. Still, I agreed to take the part. It wasn’t my first time acting in a church play. My big debut performance came just two years earlier, just before Christmas of 2012… and I took part in another church play the following summer. I also had a minor supporting role as a stagehand for both the 2010 and 2011 Christmas plays. So I was somewhat familiar with what I needed to do to prepare… albeit with much less time to work with this time. I dove into the script and gave it the best effort I could possibly give. It seemed to actually work to my benefit, creating a distraction from all the things that were weighing me down. A temporary respite, in an otherwise very chaotic time in my life.
The night of the big performance came. “Back To The Manger” was the name of the play and my role was that of a school janitor named “Mr. Olson.” I honestly don’t remember, these many years later, many of the details of the play but I do remember “Scene 6” very well! It’s in this scene where Mr. Olson, while sweeping the floor, discovers he has invented (at some point in the future) a time machine and becomes quite ecstatic.
The script called for Mr. Olson to “dance a jig” at this point. At the final rehearsal beforehand, I’d asked the director about this and was assured that the floor was mine here; I could be as creative as I saw fit.
And so, I went a bit off script and jazzed it up. In the original 1985 movie “Back To The Future”(which “Back To The Manger” adapted its name from)… Marty McFly is the guitarist at his parents’ 1955 high school homecoming dance and he goes completely berserk while performing “Johnny B. Goode”, kicking his leg out while hopping across the stage floor before leaping off one of the speakers and then knocking over another one of the speakers as he dances all around, completely oblivious to the fact that everyone else in the gymnasium had stopped what they were doing to observe his antics.
I attempted to partly replicate that scene, with that “dance a jig” prompt in the script. To the surprise of the other cast members, the crew, and the directors… I picked up the broom and began strumming on it as if it was a guitar. After dancing in place with my “guitar” for a couple seconds, I kicked my leg out and began hopping across the stage floor. And while I did not make it to the point where I was knocking over speakers or stage props, it turned out to be a big hit with the audience as well as the cast and crew.
Alas, the performance was over and I retreated to my dark world once again. As my financial, emotional, and physical state all continued to decline; I began to consider the reality that I was experiencing post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD for short. I didn’t really seek out an official diagnosis though; I just wanted the torment to stop… and I was struggling to survive. With no funds left to pay for the motel, I moved into my Honda Pilot. I asked the church to assist with temporary shelter; but it seems I was given the cold shoulder. Nobody seemed able or even willing to help in the darkest time of my life. I never thought I’d end the year (including Christmas) sleeping in my own car, especially after such a great start to 2014. But that’s exactly what happened.
Now I was eventually offered a temporary place to stay after the start of the new year. I also had a very nice Christmas dinner with great friends that year in the home of a family I knew from church. But I was never the same again. That crash in October really shook me up, far more than I could ever explain or put into words. Furthermore, I truly felt abandoned. Betrayed. By my church. By my loyal friends (some of whom I’d known for years), who cheered me on and enthusiastically supported me through the first few months of the year as I began my new adventure. Then they turned a blind eye and a deaf ear, when my world fell apart. I never understood why, and still don't. Maybe to everyone else, I was just another homeless bum.
Looking back on it now though… perhaps at the time, I may have inadvertently downplayed just how bad things really were. Maybe I wasn’t loud enough. Maybe I tried too hard to hide the incredible pain I was really feeling. But at the same time, I still question… did that really even matter? I knew nothing would ever be the same again.
Fast forward to today. It is September 28th 2022 as I write this. Eventually, I overcame the hurt feelings but it wasn't easy. It took me a long time to once again feel comfortable around my church family. At times, I still feel like an outsider. Being quite introverted by nature doesn't help much, of course. Neither did some of the things I said to a few of my old friends, when I did actually speak.
I continued to experience the symptoms of PTSD, which were rather severe at times, throughout 2015 and 2016. I struggled with fear and depression. Rage and hostility. I'd become just a shell of who I once was. I thought and said, and did, things that I'd never admit to here. There was no hope for me at all. None whatsoever.
But just as mentioned before about how the best seasons in life don't last... well, fortunately, neither do the worst seasons.
I did return to the road life again, however, in 2017 and continued to drive long distance until earlier this year. I occasionally still experience the effects of post-trauma but they are mostly contained now and only really come to surface when I’m driving or planning a drive. Especially when it’s raining, or sometimes even with rain in the forecast. Even then, it’s not every time. Not nearly every time.
That profile picture not only illustrates one of my favorite memories ever, it represents so much more to me. It represents what was a beacon of light in the midst of my world completely falling apart. It’s a symbol of strength, as I buried the overwhelming pain and sadness for just a little while to create one of the best memories I could ever have possibly created. It’s a symbol of survival, as I (eventually) overcame those struggles I faced in those final weeks of 2014.
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Excellent work. Looking forward to reading more!
Heartfelt and relatable
The story invoked strong personal emotions