A couple of months ago, Thanksgiving day started out with some unexpected drama on my street. At about 12:30 a.m., I heard emergency vehicles screaming down the street. They stopped right next door to my house. I had no idea at the time that a man was dying just a few feet away from me.
As I watched, emergency crews went in and out of the house for at least half an hour, hurrying to get things from their vehicles. I took pictures of the bright red scene — as you see above — but I never knew what was going on. I finally went back inside and the trucks and ambulances left. I assumed someone might have been taken to a hospital. Maybe it was a fall. Or a heart attack. I just didn’t know.
It wasn’t until the next afternoon that I talked with another neighbor who told me what happened. I don’t know the woman who lives in the place where the emergency crews were working. I’ve seen her a few times, but we’ve never talked. I just knew she lived alone with her young daughter, who I’ve spoken to briefly a few times
What I didn’t know is that the woman’s brother had come to stay with them. I don’t know how long he had been there or why he had come, but it was apparently more than just a brief visit. Even if I had known he was there, though, I would have had no way to know that he was dying of a heroin overdose that night.
What is it that leads an otherwise healthy adult — well into the middle part of his life — to move in with his sister and then die alone from a self-induced drug overdose? What choices had he made that brought him to that place?
About a month later, I saw a story in the local newspaper about a 35-year-old homeless woman who was found dead. According to the story, “Christina Louise Dyer, 35, was found in the 2600 block of Green Springs Highway about 7:30 a.m. [two days before Christmas]. Dyer, from Evansville, Ind., had been in Alabama for several years. She was homeless and lived in the woods behind the Salvation Army Thrift Store, an area frequented by other homeless persons.”
How did a 35-year-old woman end up homeless and alone in a state many miles from home? How did she make the decisions that led to her dying in the woods with nobody to love her or take care of her?
Last week, I heard yet another story of a man who died alone.
Mark was 51 years old. I’m told that he was brilliant. He had a degree in physics from Georgia Tech and various other degrees after that. At one point, he was working on a Ph.D. in physics. One of his great pleasures was talking about quantum physics and speculating about the nature of reality. He had all sorts of ideas about all sorts of interesting thing, and he was sure he was right.
Despite this brilliance, Mark had never done much with his life. He kept meaning to. He kept talking about what he was going to do. There were books he was going to write. There were all sorts of impressive things he planned.
But instead of doing those impressive things, he was living alone in an apartment in a major city. He hated where he lived, but he felt tied there, because that’s where he had access to the social welfare agencies that enabled him to survive — since he wasn’t doing anything to make a living.
He suffered from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, but mostly he suffered from an addiction to alcohol that kept him from doing anything productive. His doctor had told him that he had to quit drinking, because the alcohol was causing some kind of serious problem, but that didn’t stop him from buying vodka and beer every day.
Mark had been divorced many years ago. He had been estranged from his two daughters for years. Just recently, there had been some contact with one of his daughters. The other one still had nothing to do with him, though.
One day last week, he was found alone in his apartment. His condition was described as “unresponsive.” And then he was dead.
What decisions did Mark make that led him to that lonely death in his apartment? What things happened to him along the way that made his promising life into one of misery and torment? What led him to die alone while he kept other people — some of whom wanted to love him — at arm’s length?
Mark’s story hit me hard, because I could see faint echoes of myself in him. I don’t have an alcohol problem (since I don’t even drink) and I don’t have any kind of chronic medical problem. But I am alone in the world and I have made certain decisions that kept out the love that would have made my life very different.
About five and a half years ago, I backed out of marrying a woman who I loved very much and who loved me very much. Why? I’ve talked about here it before, but the reasons were complicated. I had fears about her and I also had fears about myself. Some of my fears were legitimate, but even those legitimate reasons were mostly a cover to prevent me from taking the chance of letting someone in more intimately. I think I was afraid of not having her approval. I was afraid of not being good enough for her. I was afraid of not living up to what she wanted in a husband. So I chose the known pain of being alone instead of facing the unknown fears of not living up to what my would-be wife needed me to be.
Over the last five years, I went into something of a tailspin. I was depressed at having thrown away what I wanted. Since I don’t drink, I didn’t turn to alcohol, but I turned to food as an addiction. I gained about a hundred pounds as I used sugar to “self-soothe” the pain I felt.
Just a few months ago, I finally started getting control of the ways in which I’ve been treating myself. I’ve started work to shed the pounds I had allowed myself to gain. (I’m down 27 pounds so far, but have a long way to go.) I’ve started doing some things professionally that I didn’t want to do, but which I needed to do. I’m exploring longer-term opportunities and pursuing things which I was ignoring not long ago.
I’ve changed a lot of my attitudes. Instead of drifting through life without purpose — as I had been for five years — I’m focused on learning how to be what I used to expect myself to be. I’m trying to recover the focus and determination of the teen self I once knew. I’m re-learning what it means to be great, and I’m figuring out how to put that into practice. I’m trying to learn how to be the person who everyone else — myself included — used to expect me to be.
I don’t want to be like the man who died next door to me. I don’t want to be like homeless Christina. I don’t want to be like Mark. I don’t want to die alone and unloved.
Nobody who’s sane and psychologically healthy wants to die. We want to use our lives to the best of our ability. We want to spend every moment we can enjoying life and enjoying love. I want to use the next 20 or so prime years of my life to achieve the sorts of things that will allow me to feel that my life has been worthwhile. I want to make things that I can be proud of. I want to be rewarded financially for what I know how to do. I want to love and be loved by a woman. I want to raise children in an emotionally healthy and happy home.
Life can be worth so much when we make the right decisions. But it can be a nightmare when we make decisions that leave us alone and unloved.
I’m sorry for the death of the man who died about a hundred feet from me on Thanksgiving. I’m sorry for the death of the woman who died alone in the cold woods two days before Christmas. I’m sorry for the death of a brilliant man alone in his apartment last week.
But I appreciate the lesson they can teach — of the truth they can remind me — that life is worth living only when we make the decisions that produce happy lives.
I want love. I want achievement. I want to be “insanely great.” I can only have any of those things if I focus on making the right decisions. The next couple of decades will decide whether I’ve made the right decisions or not. But for the first time in at least five years, I’m optimistic and I’m confident that I won’t be one of the lonely statistics who dies alone and unloved.