Strength I Could Never Have Imagined

Submitted into Contest #146 in response to: Write about a character discovering a surprising strength in either themself or another.... view prompt


American Creative Nonfiction

This story contains themes or mentions of mental health issues.

The letter that followed the manuscript was in a familiar script, but one I hadn’t seen in 30 years. He reached out for my help, and for the first time, I was in the position to give it.

And so, this is his story, summarized from a memoir carefully constructed. It’s sad and true and needs to be heard.

Every loss in my life has been tied to that moment. And that sound – right before the flash. Most people will never experience it up close. It’s like gun shots.

When I was eighteen years old, I was a soccer phenom. All-American, top recruit, headed to one of the best soccer schools in the country. On a spring evening near my hometown in the Midwest, I felt like king of the world, celebrating on the field as my team clinched the state title.

And then that sound, a flash, and everything changed forever.

He was a college demigod: a member of an elite university’s top-rated soccer team. He had the good looks and swagger of a guy who was preternaturally gifted and knew it. But he also carried a deep sadness. His story was known, circulated sotto voce with plenty of ill-informed innuendoes. He didn’t talk about it much. He shared it in bits in pieces with the lucky few who gained his confidence. Sometimes, in the dead of night after too much to drink, I was one of them.

I was immobilized, knocked unconscious by a brilliant blast. When I came to, I was face down and spread-eagled on the wet grass. I smelled something burnt and my ears were ringing. I had the sensation of vertigo, plunging deep into the earth. I had no idea I had been struck by lightning. My father was hit also. He was badly injured and had to be airlifted to a hospital. We had no idea of the extent of his injuries. Four months later he was dead.

But his father would have insisted that he play on, so he did. He entered pre-season training in August fearing his father would never see him hit the pitch. One fall weekend, after a win, he got the news by phone. On the same day he buried his father, he returned to school in time to score his first college goal.

He survived the event that killed his father, but his wounds ran deep. He would never reclaim the unfettered joy of his childhood. Of being a happy middle-class Midwestern kid with lots of love in his life and tremendous athletic and academic potential. The sound of thunder would always provoke a visceral reaction, a traumatic response — a deep, resounding fear he could never shake. Every loud clap and bright flash would transport him back to that field and the moment that ended life as he knew it.

Decades later I would tell people that when they heard more about his life, getting struck by lightning was one of the less interesting things that had happened to him. I wasn’t wrong.

Today, colleges have therapy dogs for students who are feeling stressed due to exams. I never saw one single psychiatrist, psychologist, therapist, or counselor at college. Now we know I had chronic PTSD. The event literally seared the trauma into me forever. But back then people just assumed I was grieving.

For three years of college, he performed well in the powder keg of competitive excess that is an NCAA Division 1 athletic program. This university, a “public Ivy,” was also known for its academic standards and its reputation as a party school. In this “work hard, play hard” environment he kept it together by doing what he had to do, being where he had to be, like clockwork, on autopilot. And one fateful day he snapped.

I knew him then, enough to be his party companion but not enough to recognize the extent of his damage. I knew what he liked to drink and where he would be late at night. I knew I was just one of many girls who were thrilled to get some of his attention. I still have his college soccer t-shirt I wore home one blurry morning.

His energy, to the unknowing, was fun and exciting. His capacity for risk-taking matched mine, a girl nursing frustrations from thirteen years of private Catholic education. I was ready to blow it all up, and he was ready to pull the pin.

The night before it all caught up with him, we consumed alcohol the way only twenty-year-old kids with something to prove or seasoned alcoholics can. I was at that age when it seemed liquor gave me so much more than it took — until it took from me something I could never get back. I remember yelling, things breaking, recklessly riding shotgun. I got out of the car just in time.

 And then he was sent away.

The next thing I knew I was strapped to a stretcher, put in an ambulance, and headed for my first stay at a psychiatric facility. My clean drug test led the ER doctor who saw me after my wreck to believe that what ailed me was far worse than some illicit college drug use.

He was eventually diagnosed with bipolar disorder, type 1, manic, and post-traumatic stress syndrome. Perhaps if it were not thirty years ago, he would have been identified as someone who needed help before he drove his car into a barricade. But he was overlooked, his athletic ability hiding some of his mental deterioration and making him too valuable to the team to lose to an invisible illness. Even those trained to look past the obvious reasoned that his behavior was a not an abnormal response to tragically losing his father. He’d get through this. He’d toughen up. Pull himself together.

The adults in his life lacked the tools to properly diagnose and treat him, and his peers lacked the empathy required to support him. We were spectators, cheering him on in his exploits while never bothering to uncover what lay beneath. When it all imploded and he disappeared from the scene, we moved on. When he returned, we carried on without him.

When I returned to the university after missing a semester, I was determined to pick up right where I left off and show no signs of weakness. But questions arose among my teammates and within my wider social circle. I knew people were whispering ‘emotional breakdown’ and ‘mental hospital.’ I would overhear — or directly hear — terms like ‘went mental’ and ‘psycho.’ I was attempting to recover my past life in an inhospitable environment surrounded by people who were oblivious to their cruelty.”

I still have a letter he wrote me, apparently in response to a note I had sent him after he went away. It’s short and apologetic, thanking me for my concern and hopeful that better days will follow for us. He asked me to keep him current on school gossip, a line that says more about me at that time than I’d like to admit.

But I know now that I was one of the cruel ones. I played a role, because I was young and stupid and lacked any understanding of how his brain had failed him. There is one scene that I remember in sparkling detail and have been replaying in my mind. It’s a memory that hasn’t faded through decades of life milestones that by all logic should have replaced it. Every flashback summons my guilt. And it’s why I am telling his story. I am imagining it’s my mitzvah; my chance to redeem myself.

We never reconnected at college. And then I was gone, back to my New England hometown and a world away from the insular southern time capsule I’d been immersed in the past few years.

Back at school, I was not under psychiatric care and was not being treated with medication. I experienced the first severe clinical depressive episode of my life the fall of my last year of college. All the typical worries of a college senior were magnified times ten in my genetically defective brain. I spent hours by myself, finding no pleasure in the usual outlets of college students. Just being present was a Herculean daily chore.

But I did pull myself together and remained part of the soccer team, dutifully riding the bench. I excelled in my remaining classes and earned my degree, against a lot of odds.

He was a soccer star, Parade All-American, and graduate of an elite public university. And he was fighting a debilitating mental illness coupled with PTSD from a life-shattering event.

If he had been born a few decades later, or if neuroscience had evolved a bit quicker, this piece of his story could have been the dramatic climax of a portrait of the college athlete as a young man. I could claim to have been there for the most compelling part and was a spectator as he was redeemed, in a graduation gown, fully medicated, and on the right clinical path. Problem solved.

Instead, his college years were a prologue to a long, meandering story with many repeating chapters and some horrifying plot twists.

After college, I spent time on my mother’s couch, adjusting to different medicines and trying to maintain some sense of normalcy while I rode the wave of side effects. I moved to a city I liked and settled into an apartment, a job, a new relationship. It seemed as if my life was finally coming together, that a little bit of good was finally balancing out a lot of bad. But then came the hypomania, the state that is a prelude to mania. My brain was malfunctioning, and I’d soon spiral out of control. Another visit to the ER, another round of interventions in a psychiatric hospital.

The cycle continued: apparent recovery, a new venture, a new locale, a period of excitement and productivity, then the terrifying escalation to mania. Some precipitating event would send him to an ER, under duress, and sometimes accompanied by law enforcement agents. Another admission to some facility, some helpful, some traumatizing, would follow, until either his insurance ran out or he was “stabilized.”

There was a pattern. The manic episodes of bipolar ravaged my life. I strained my family bonds, lost significant others, lost job opportunities, lost countless dollars to medical care. Some people use the metaphor of a hurricane to describe bipolar disorder. The storm comes and wrecks everything in its path, and once it’s gone there’s always the chance a worse one will show up next hurricane season. But for me it was always hurricane season, and there was nowhere for me to go to escape the reach of the pending storms.

And then this happened, which is hard to believe, except it isn’t. He attempted another fresh start, in graduate school at a university in the deep South. All was going relatively well: he made friends, played a bit of pick-up soccer, and even got a job assisting the university’s soccer coach. But at some point, he had a falling out with the coach, and a hot-tempered voicemail landed him in jail, charged with “harassing communications,” a lowest-level misdemeanor.

If you have some image about what a deep-South county jail is like, I assure you, it’s ten times worse. And the jail wasn’t the worst place I was sent. Because of my history of mental illness, instead of being processed for my misdemeanor like most violators, I was sent to a “forensic” facility — a psychiatric facility under the control of the state’s criminal justice system. The place was a terrifying asylum that dated back to 1861. It survived the Civil War because Union soldiers were too afraid to go near it. It was a place of predators, prey, and violence. I was a target because I was athletic and apparently well-educated, which my co-inmates equated with privilege. When I wasn’t being assaulted by my “peers” I was being tortured by the orderlies. A few of them would smash me into four-point restraints and shoot me up with the drug Haldol, a cheap, heavy antipsychotic. I had extreme reactions to the drug and received no medical care. All my family’s interventions were futile. I would not be released; not after three months, or another three months…until I escaped.

In less than a decade, he went from starting on a top-ranked Division 1 soccer team to planning his escape from a psychiatric prison in the deep south. He was successful, pulling off a stunt that would make both the Count of Monte Cristo and James Bond proud.

He crossed state lines to safety — the state decided not to extradite for a lowest-level misdemeanor. In the aftermath of this episode, he was helped onto a better path for managing his illness. Although he now had trauma piled on top of his trauma, he managed to move himself forward once again.

His next stop was law school. He applied, got in, managed to fund it, and made it through a year of attending school full-time and working as a paralegal part-time. And then he unraveled. There was another hospitalization, a recovery and a regrouping, and the decision to switch to part-time law school. He finished in five years, passed his state’s bar exam on his first try, became a licensed attorney, and got married. And that would have been a wonderful place to conclude his story, with professional and personal success. But even as he rebuilt his life, his mental illness would find a way to knock him down. It was like he was playing an unending game of Jenga, steadying the pile only to pick the wrong piece on his next turn. The stigma surrounding mental illness is real and pervasive.

When I interviewed at law firms, I told the senior partners the truth: that I’ve been court-ordered into psychiatric hospitals my whole life and I had a felony charge (since dropped but living on the internet indefinitely) for escaping an Alabama psychiatric asylum. Is it surprising I never got called back?

And it began again. After cycling through a series of non-legal jobs, he once again found himself spiraling out of control. His marriage deteriorated. He had exhausted the goodwill of his family. He was supplementing the wrong medication with alcohol. He had no choice but to leave, again. He belonged nowhere and he had no one.

He wandered to yet another city, blew through his remaining money, and found himself homeless. He was hospitalized again, and when once again the healthcare system failed him; he was back on the street. And then he found shelter — and so much more — at an “adult rehabilitation center” run by the Salvation Army. He was now 48 years old.

I had a menial job, access to lousy but life-sustaining food, a place to sleep each night, and access to some medications, if not the right ones. But for obvious reasons I was in the darkest depression of my life. I would ask myself every day why I was there. Why my father was killed by lightning. Why I have a genetic mental illness. Why I lost everyone in my life. But the hand of providence was going to touch me.

He wasn’t saved immediately. He credits his eventual turnaround to the help of his counselor, a most unlikely character: a man who had done time for a double murder and turned his life around by finding religion. With the support of his new spiritual guide and access to a private doctor who was finally able to prescribe him effective medicine, he pieced his life back together.

I was finally able to leave the Salvation Army and return home. I was on a path of reconciliation with my wife and have mended my relationships with my mother and sisters. My life path has led me to a place of spirituality and gratitude. I began writing things down as I remembered them, reminding myself where I’ve been, even as it pains me. I no longer lie about my illness or my experiences. I am committed to speaking out about the societal stigma and self-stigma that plagues people suffering from mental illness.

And that’s how I found him. His book was on Amazon, delivered to my phone screen through an odd twist of fate. There he was, in an online video promoting his memoir. In a suit, at a podium, speaking to members of his city’s bar association about mental illness and inclusion, using his almost unbelievable life story to very matter-of-factly illustrate key points.

I recognized the look of sadness in his green eyes at once. He looked weathered but healthy, exuding a low-key but charming ease with sharing even the darkest moments of his past. He had written a book, which he would soon share with me. I read it twice, and then decided that if he were willing, I would help him tell his story.

Of course, I remember you! Please don't take this the wrong way, but I often think of you as a "boy did I screw up" in being unable to have a solid relationship with someone wonderful. But unfortunately, the lights were on, but no one was home. I am sorry.

I haven’t yet told him that I am sorry, for not being worthy of that memory. For being someone else in the long list of people who had failed him. For not recognizing what an exceptional person he must be, to possess the strength to deal with the circumstances of his tumultuous life. But I will make it up to him. We will put his story out there, and his suffering will become a means of advocating for societal change. 

May 19, 2022 17:26

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Felice Noelle
13:08 May 26, 2022

Caitlin: Wow! Such a powerful story about a tragic super hero. You told his story in such a sensitive way without preaching to us. I read it knowing what would happen every step of the way. I, too, lived in the Midwest with a sports and academic giant as a young husband. He, too, experienced traumatic bipolar swings that r equired police intervention and dangerous, risky behaviors. Suicide attempts were serious and numerous, in both highs and lows. Wish I had your courage to write about it, but I have written only for his children. ...


Caitlin Cusack
18:06 May 26, 2022

Thank you so much for your kind words! He actually wrote a book that he self-published. I am trying to get his story optioned for a dramatic series -- such a long hard slog to get it in the right people's hands! Your enthusiasm gives me hope. Thanks again.


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