march fourth, march seventh, march eleventh: a chink in the armor

Ryan Heller
Chris and I are on a cruise ship somewhere in the middle of the ocean en route from Jamaica to Mexico for his birthday.
I am sitting on our balcony that overlooks a basketball court. About twelve kids are playing an unidentifiable game that requires a lot of running around in circles and throwing a ball back and forth to one another. Sneakers squeak like little mice, echoing up to our room.

It has been a long few days on the ship with several more to go. A much needed break from work and life. Note to self: those two are purposely being kept separate, as they have been synonymous for too long.

I keep closing my eyes every few moments and the exhaustion that has been plaguing me feels like it settles momentarily. Each blink extends a few seconds before I open my eyes to manic children throwing balls and screaming.

[Extended blink and I feel better]

This lingering fatigue is like day two of a pill bender. Awake but not awoken, dragging my body through the motions while yearning for a moment to sit and close my eyes. A human slug being propelled solely by the need to not feel like a human slug.

[Extended blink]

The most amusing are the surreal in-between-blink-dreams that I can only equate to the “pass out game” we used to play in high school. Where one kid chokes another until he blacks out. In that split moment, vivid images and plotlines play out like epic movies you’ll never see again and forget in the following minutes. You drop out of consciousness for only a few seconds. Your tongue suddenly tastes bitter, head feels fuzzy and you begin to see pulsing lights that float through the air like particles of glitter shaken in water. The oxygen that quit flowing to your brain now begins to make it’s way back and the out of body experience fades just as quickly as it came.

I absolutely loved that game.

So much so that I would strangle myself just to experience the dreams. Alone in my bedroom, I wrapped my hands around my neck and squeezed tight until darkness crept in from my peripheral vision and my head began to tingle. I was convinced that I was accessing some past life or parallel universe. Crossing a plane that was meant to be hidden from the human realm.

[Very extended blink that triggered an image of the Cruise Director dressed as a construction worker saying “Hey, come here” in a Groucho Marx voice.]

* Three days have passed since I wrote the above few paragraphs. *

I have since made my way over to the ships chapel while Chris gets ready for dinner. We return home tomorrow and what has been a weeklong escape from the crazy of reality will close. I feel that this vacation comes just before the storm hits. There is so much change brewing back home that I know this was our time to crawl inward and find whatever it is inside ourselves to move full steam ahead.

I used to hold on to the idea of childhood with clenched fists. I never saw myself as an adult, just this kid getting knocked around and told where to go and what to do next. Not that anyone necessarily was telling me what to do, but I would find myself in situations, play the part, then watch as it crumbled and let the stream float me on to the next thing. Because it’s easier when I’m not the one making the decisions. Taking responsibility.

This chapter in my world right now is one where I actually feel like a big kid and an adult. I’ll never lose the kid, nor do I want to. But I needed the responsible side to kick in.

* Four days have passed [a very long extended blink] We are now home. * 

So much of my personal growth was halted when I began the drug dance at fifteen. I was this insecure, fearful kid with no friends who was followed by the dark cloud of homosexuality no matter how hard I wanted to hide from it. Lonely, introspective and isolated, drugs incubated those feelings for the next fourteen years of my life. I kept secrets, ran from responsibility, lied about everything and gravitated toward anything that had even the smallest possibility of making me feel something other than empty.

I’m sure I held onto childhood so preciously because it was what I knew of a carefree life. A child who was loved so unconditionally by family, who could do no wrong and was treated like a direct extension of the Grand Master. I was special in my own mind and treated like a prince by my family. There were no obligations to worry about, no commitments or relationships other than my immediate family. I was filled with imagination, escaping in fantasy most of my adolescence.

But at some point I began to feel like I let that kid down. Let down that little boy who was still dancing and singing to Michael Jackson on Birchwood Place somewhere in time. I disappointed myself as I grew to see that my isolation was a concern to people. That the inflection in my voice and my less than masculine walk was not so warmly accepted by my peers as I entered middle school. The light that shined so bright within me as a kid faded with each passing day I had to walk the halls of Walter C. Young Middle School. Like a candle deprived of oxygen, my flame slowly retracted and extinguished into a thin line of smoke that dissipated almost as quickly as it came.

I entered what my parents refer to as my “Dark Period”. It was the beginning of the most beautifully tragic time of my thirty years on this planet. A pain that I can look back on now with such an appreciation for. There was a complexity and depth to what I experienced for years that makes me who I am today. It allows me to tell the story with an insight I never would have had without walking that path.

I will share more about that period at some point. But not now.

I got lost on this tangent because I recently realized something that I have not yet fully digested. I am growing up. The years of melancholy incubation is shedding from me like the molting of an old skin that no longer fits this life.

I just Googled “molting” for a visual reference and was lead to Wikipedia, the source of all knowledge. There is a .gif timelapse clip of a cicada molting. An arguably repugnant looking bug that breaks open it’s exoskeleton to emerge as a slightly more attractive creature with large wings. The metaphor is quite beautiful actually.

That exoskeleton, the full-body armor that I shielded myself in has slowly been disassembled over the past few years since rehab — one appendage at a time. Maybe just a pinkie at first. Then a thumb. Pointer finger. After a couple of months, my entire right hand was free. Bit by bit the self-loathing, uncomfortable, sad and bitter shell began to fall. With each chink in armor, the light I lost from childhood began to shine again.

I have my bitch moments. My victim days. Whine sessions. I want to tell people to fuck off more often than I should. I struggle. I get in my head and have a hard time getting out. I’ll always love dark days with deep emotion because that is what I’ve always known. I listen to sad music with heavy lyrics and sullen voices. Tortured artists make me smile and blush.

I think the point is that I’ll always be that squeaky, bouncy little kid who performs for his family in makeshift tank top dresses. I’ll always be that awkward sixth grader who wrote poetry about his purpose in life. I’ll always be that preteen who read books about Witchcraft and attempted spells as revenge on kids who bullied me. I’ll always be swimming in blue shag rug under glow-in-the-dark stars, because that is where it began. I will always be the drug addict who found solace in pain and pain in solace. The artist who found a voice by losing himself.

For so long I had to compartmentalize these things as who I was, who I am and who I wished I could be. The past was painful because it was something I could never have again, the present was miserable because I was never happy, and the future just seemed like it was always out of reach. I was this being who treaded water in limbo, waiting for something that would ultimately never be enough.

But I am beginning to see that I am all of these things. I am past, present and future. Nothing is lost because it all shapes me and in turn I shape what lies ahead.

This is my fabric — all the tears, patterns and beautiful imperfections. With it I have everything I had been searching for all along.

This talk of growth and personal revelation is so much easier said than done. But I guess that’s the whole point of the journey. To keep on walking, experiencing and learning. From the balcony of a cruise ship seven days ago to sitting on my couch at home with The Walking Dead paused on TV. Shit changes so quick, but at the end of the day I’ve always got me. And that will never change.

And so the story continues.

[Extended blink]

Thanks for reading