“I feel guilty for having called you,” I confess to the stranger at the other end of the line.
“Why is that?” Hotline asks in reply.
“We both know at this point, an hour into this call, that I was never going to kill myself.”
“And that makes you feel guilty?”
“I’ve wasted your time and stolen it from someone who probably needed it much more than I did.”
“You called, so you must have been feeling something fairly strong that made you think you were going to harm yourself.”
“Yeah, but it wasn’t like I was actually going to do it.”
“You don’t know how far those feelings may have pushed you; you did the right thing by calling.”
“You say that, but I’m sure you talk every day to people far more desperate than I am to leave this world. I feel like I’m taking up time you could better spend by helping someone that really needs it.”
“I don’t think desperation works that way; you can’t pull out a measuring tape and compare one person’s desperation to another’s.”
“Maybe so, but I still feel selfish.”
“Feel selfish if you need to, but you’re alive, and you seem to want to stay that way. I’ll call that a win.”
“Tonight was the closest I have ever come to ending who I am, but as bad as it was, as desperate and lonely and terrible as I felt, it was nothing compared to what my brother went through, or how hopeless he must have felt at the end.”
“Is that what you want? To know what he went through? To feel how he felt?”
A heavy silence fills my ends of the line.
“To what end? I never knew your brother, but I can’t believe he would want you to go through everything he did.”
“No, he wouldn’t, in spite of the fact that I treated him like shit for years.” My voice is wet with tears, and I hate the sound of it.
“Sounds like he was a pretty loving guy, your brother.”
“Sounds like he’d forgive you if he were here.”
“Oh, he already has, I know he has.”
“Sounds like he isn’t the one who needs to forgive you.”
I stand in the empty high school parking lot, watching my breath appear and fade into the cold dark night. I have heard Hotline’s heavy implication many times before, from people that love me, in language much less subtle.
“This goes against protocol, but what’s your brother’s name?” Hotline asks.
I close my eyes and remember my brother’s face, bright and smiling while my kids jump and bounce around him, wild-eyed, happy, and vying for their precious uncle’s attention as they gleefully shout his name.
It has been almost ten years since Jared died. I’ve tried to move forward with my life, blessed with a wife and kids and friends that love and support me, and I have experienced moments of great change, joy, and success. But the harsh memories of how I mis-treated my brother have remained tethered to me like a black balloon, watching over my happiest moments with sadness, guilt, and regret.
It is a hard thing, to forgive yourself.
I have sometimes jerked down on the black balloon’s tether, inviting its shadow to descend just a bit, for just a while, so that it may more fully cover me in darkness. It is inside the resulting shadow of these descensions that I have found myself in our bedroom closet biting the back of my wrist until it bruises, out walking the streets of the city in the dark of night, or numbing away the hours in the scalding waters of a tub, accompanied by long poured glasses of rum and dark, murderous, subtitled television.
It is a hard thing, to live your life as a cliché.
There have also been times that I have pulled the black balloon much too close. Pressing it against my chest, I can feel the static crackle of its dark energy, and I welcome the emotional rush as the warm, familiar companionship of Grief embraces me. In moments when no one else can or will, Grief dotes on me, holding my hand and keeping me company as I tremble and cry and wish for the impossible. But eventually Grief tires of my company. It is then that she turns on me, reminding me again and again of the terrible things I said, the terrible things I did, the terrible person I was. Satisfied that I am at my lowest, Grief quietly slips away, leaving me in the capable hands of Guilt, her formidable protege. Guilt is a real sonofabitch; he pours it on thick, coating me in a dark, viscous shell of self-loathing until I am unable to stomach my own existence as a selfish, unlovable, unforgiveable wretch. It is within the constricting cocoon of Guilt’s fellowship that I begin to believe that my life would be better without me in it.
It is a hard thing, to go on living in spite of hating yourself.
“How would you feel about being loving like Jared, and forgiving yourself?” Hotline suggests, his gentle tone interrupting my harmful reverie.
“It’s definitely what he would want,” I admit.
“Of course it is, but is it what you want?”
My mind trods back through all the time I’ve lost in the company of Guilt.
“Yes, I want to forgive myself,” I finally declare, after a long and thoughtful come-to-Jesus silence.
“Okay, good. Now do it.”
“What, like, right now?”
“No time like the present!”
“I’ve spent years building this guilt, I can’t just forgive myself in an instant and be happy to go on living!”
“It’s true that most people can’t.”
“Well then what the hell am I going to do, call you every night?”
“No, you’re going to wake up and actively forgive yourself every day,” Hotline answers, a gentle “duh” in his tone.
“Every day for the rest of my life?”
“Every day for weeks, months, years, for however long it takes it to stick…“
“It took a while to build it, it’s going to take a while to tear it down.”
“Oh, that’s good, do yourself a favor and remember that whenever you don’t feel like forgiving yourself.”
“I should probably write it on my bathroom mirror.”
“Whatever it takes,” Hotline says.
“Paint it on the ceiling above my bed…”
“You could set it as the wallpaper on your phone…” Hotline suggests.
“On every wall in my house…”
“Don’t forget the front of the fridge…” Hotline adds.
“And every other surface that I look at several times a day,” I conclude.
“Whatever it takes,” Hotline says.
A few moments later, after expressing my sincere gratitude to a total stranger whose name I will never know but whose words I will never forget, I end the call. As I walk across the empty parking lot, back to my home and my family sleeping within its walls, I imagine Guilt, alone and defeated, sulking off into the night.
The black balloon’s tether slips just a bit.
For anyone reading this that may now or ever find themselves feeling things that leave them doubting their worth in the slightest, Hotline’s direct number is free to anyone who needs it, 24 hours a day, 365 days a year: 1-800-273-8255