His grip on the handle was so tight that I could see the veins popping from his forearm. Sweat collected on his brow. His long red hair was ragged, and his chest moved in and out in fitful starts. He handed me the machete. “Isn’t this weighted perfectly to lop someone’s head off?” He looked at me strangely; his pupils seemed to quiver. I had to agree with him.
Shane (not his real name) hadn’t slept in three or four days. He opened the blinds on the windows and peered out every 15 seconds or so. He was expecting an ex-girlfriend and her new sugar daddy to show up. “That fucking bitch. Her and her new boyfriend hacked my phone and laptop,” he said. “I had $26,000 in my bank account this morning, and now it’s gone. They want to threaten my life? Come the fuck on then. I’m ready.”
He kept repeating the same nonsensical things to himself, or to anyone within earshot who may have been listening. “They’re fucking toying with me,” he said. “My phone is locked. I can’t get on my laptop. I can’t even make any outgoing calls.”
He was convinced that his phone and laptop had been hacked by the sugar daddy, and they were listening to everything being said in the house. He’d made allusions to surveillance cameras being planted by the ex-girlfriend and reminded me not to say anything incriminating. At the time, these things seemed almost easy to discount. However, I’d met the ex, who was a stripper at a local “gentlemen’s club,” and she had bragged about being able to influence men to do what she wanted — namely, pay her rent, bills and finance her drug habit. I didn’t doubt her willingness to try to hurt Shane in the least. She was completely ruthless.
Scorned stripper out for blood
Shane was my roommate. I’d lived there for four months and had grown accustomed to his minor mood swings. This situation was much different than the eccentricities I’d noticed him exhibit before. I’d met his former fiancée (not the one who was threatening him with a .50 caliber Desert Eagle), when I came to look at the room I eventually rented in Mira Mesa. Bo (not her real name) had shown me the house and the room, and two days later, when I came to give the primary renter the first and last months’ rent and security deposit, I met Shane for the first time. He was upset and couldn’t seem to hold a thought in his head. “She packed up her shit and left me,” he said. “She drained my fucking bank account and took off while I was at work. Four and a half years, and she takes off, like a thief in the night.”
Shane had shown me emails, texts, and Facebook messages from Bo. She seemed to take savage delight in having played him for a fool. Shane may have had his faults, but he was certainly no fool, and he was loyal. When he told me he could have cheated but didn’t — I believed him. Now he was dealing with a different ex — a scorned stripper who was out for blood.
Shane had enlisted in the Marine Corps at age 20, after growing up in a small town in Connecticut. He served eight years in total and did two tours in Iraq. His original military occupational specialty was as a guitarist in the Marine Corps Band. His duties, at least for the beginning of his terms, were mostly ceremonial. That all changed when necessity dictated that he and his bandmates play a more direct role in combat operations. Convoys were being ambushed. Improvised explosive devices were killing and maiming scores of Americans. Shane and his detachment were attached to an infantry unit. Every Marine is a rifleman first, after all.
Shane saw the full brunt of war: everything you could think of, and far more than that. It would be a disservice to ask him about those specifics. He never really talked about it in too much detail, but did mention some things in passing that vividly described the things he experienced.
“9/11 happened. Every job in the Marines — combat breaks out, no matter what your [specialty] is. I went where I was sent.”
I served in the Marines but never saw combat. I’d joined in 1998, right out of high school, in order to escape my small-town hell. A place in Michigan you’ve never heard of — Ionia. See? Told you. It’s the sort of place people leave and don’t come back to.
I had gone to boot camp in San Diego and been stationed in Twentynine Palms and Camp Pendleton. My specialty had been 4066, which was code for computer networking and repair. I traveled to Egypt, France, Ireland, and several other countries. I spent six months aboard the USS Harpers Ferry. Not many 18- or 19-year-old kids have that kind of experience. I’d been around the world by my 20th birthday.
I found the military, however, to be an experiment in mass lobotomy. Most of the regulations are designed to keep Marines constantly pissed off. The U.S. government doesn’t want complacency in its troops. It wants angst-filled adolescents who will go kill whoever they’re told is the enemy — without hesitation.
Anger is every bit as important to the Marine Corps as discipline. This is what the military is so effective at — making its members hateful. The very word “civilian” is poison. It’s despised. It’s the lowest form of life on Earth. When I was about to become a civilian again — I looked forward to it. But anytime I thought about it, I felt a knot in my stomach. It was a void, and there was no manual, rule, or regulation I could fall back on. I would be left to my own devices.
When I got out, I was no longer living a noble Spartan existence. Getting up at 6:30 a.m. was like a crime. I felt guilty about getting soft. I’d been warned by the separations officer that many Marines, when they get out, have problems adjusting to civilian life. I began to wonder if I should talk to someone about the feelings I was experiencing.
I knew what post traumatic stress disorder was — and I didn’t have that. I’d never seen anyone blown up or bleed out. Never saw an improvised explosive device blast. Never saw a sucking chest wound. Never saw anyone die. The worst things I’d dealt with were the 125-degree heat in Egypt and blisters on my feet. There was no reason to have these thoughts.
But when I got back to Ionia and I could see friends and family every day, I found that I didn’t want to see them or talk to them. There was a gulf between them and me — and it hadn’t been there when I was 18. I couldn’t explain it then, and to this day, still have trouble doing so. My life had changed, but no one else’s had. Parents, friends, brothers, aunts, cousins — all still doing the same things, working the same jobs, dating the same people, and seemed to think that Ionia was the center of the universe. There may as well have been a dome over the city. Friends had gone to college, gotten their beautician’s licenses, had kids, gotten married, divorced, filed for bankruptcy, gone to prison, bought houses. They had had their poignant moments — but they were still the same people. They felt like strangers, people I no longer knew.
I’d passed on college to join the Marines, and in doing so, was several years behind everyone my age. They had a head start on me — I was just young and poor. There’s no field on a job application for earning an expert badge for M-16 qualification or being trained to treat a bullet wound to the throat — stop the bleeding, check the breathing.
Hell, I didn’t even understand what I was going through. So, I decided not to talk about it. And I didn’t — to anyone. I’d never even seen combat.
Shane got back safe from his first deployment, and was discharged. But things weren’t right for him, either. He became a civilian again. But there was something tugging at him every day.
“It totally shaped the way I thought for nine or ten years. And, you know…I started to have fear — anxiety disorder. It really kept life interesting.” He almost laughed as he said this. “I began having blackouts, and I’d lose it — you know, claustrophobia and having to lock the doors every night.” He’d never experienced anything like this before he’d returned from Iraq.
“At the airport, I got home to Orange County, about 20 feet in, and I felt a physical force pushing me back out. I could not be in there…it was like suffocating.”
He describes it not as a fear, but as an inability to breathe or move; he couldn’t name it or identify it. He just knew that it was present, strange and unwelcome — and it hadn’t been there before he went to Iraq. This feeling made him re-enlist. He felt that he had to. Nothing made sense to him as a civilian.
“Well, between the tours, I got back from the invasion in June of 2003, and we deployed in January of 2004. So I was probably home for about six months. It was a very fast turnaround time. We got the warning order three or four months after we got home. And that was, not a total shock, but it was pretty shocking. It was much sooner than we’d anticipated.” He was being turned around and sent back to the place he’d just come from. He also realized that he had problems he hadn’t had before his first tour. Ones that he couldn’t define precisely, and ones that society couldn’t define, either.
Shane made it back from his second tour. Soon after, he finished his second enlistment and felt he had nothing further to prove to anyone. He decided not to re-enlist. His friends made it back safe and he was ready to get on with his life. No one could say he hadn’t done his part.
A few months after getting out, Shane had a horrific car accident. He rolled his SUV four times across the I-15. He was lucky to live, or so the police told him. He still suffers the after-effects. He takes daily doses of Oxycontin, Percocet, and Vicodin for back pain, anti-anxiety pills for his post-traumatic stress, Adderall for his ADD, and has a card for medicinal marijuana.
When I got out of the Marines, I could drink or do as many drugs as I wanted every night, and the worst consequence I would face was a hangover. I wouldn’t have to run five miles in the morning, feeling like I was going to die.
No redneck platoon sergeant from West Virginia bitching at me for smelling like booze in the morning or not shaving that day. I had enough common sense to always go to work, no matter how bad I felt. The central thread in my life no longer held things together. Life was random — whatever structure existed was of my own making.
But I was working, I was saving, and could see my family and friends. Instead of living 2500 miles from home, I lived five minutes away. I worked several jobs — drywall, moving company, concrete factory, and made far more money than I had in the military. Yet it wasn’t the same as being a Marine. The freedom to do as I wished was refreshing, but I missed the structure and regimen that had been part of my existence for so long. Life in the military was mastered.
My youngest brother and sister were toddlers when I left for boot camp. Now they were in elementary school. I’d missed their formative years. What could I have taught them from my own experiences, had I been there? Those years would never come back. One new benefit, though, had allowed me to start thinking and speaking critically, especially about politics and watching my friends go off to Iraq or Afghanistan. Why were they going in the first place? That sort of thing was frowned upon by the military. But that no longer mattered. I was beyond their reach.
As much as I loathed it, I maintained some aspects of military life. I couldn’t help it. I had a deep-seated aversion to breaking rules that I was no longer subject to. I’ll never understand why, but my posture was perfect. I still got my hair cut every other week, although in the Marines it’s weekly. I insisted on shaving every weekday but never on weekends. This was a small victory.
I still addressed people that I deemed worthy as “sir” or “ma’am.” My proclivity for tattoos never waned. My closet was meticulously arranged, and I kept my camouflage and desert uniforms and field kit at the ready, in case I ever needed them. I kept my field pack (which is the best backpack you could ever own). I still carry it. I guess I never really took it off.
Shane’s second breakdown...
...came only three days after his first. He was on day seven of not sleeping or eating. I had tried to stay up with him and to calm him down. All he needed was a good night’s sleep and he would be fine. It didn’t work out that way. I talked to him for six hours. “Just eat something and go to bed,” I told him many times over the course of the conversation.
“Yeah, I will, but I can’t stop thinking about all the information on my laptop. Anyone could use it. They’re probably selling my shit online right now.” All his answers were similar to this; he simply could not make himself stop talking. He was convinced that he was right and not just imagining things. He wasn’t quite babbling — he was completely lucid. But there was desperation behind his words that I’d never heard before. I’d been around people who had taken too many drugs in the past, and that’s what he was acting like.
Finally, he promised to go to sleep, and I went to bed since I had class early the next morning. Our other roommate, Rod, had encountered Shane the night before and early that morning. Rod was a nursing student and left early. When he left for work at 5:30 a.m., Shane was still awake. At around 6 o’clock, I woke up to Shane banging on my bedroom door. “Dude, someone’s trying to break in the house!” he yelled. I opened my bedroom door. Shane was standing there, wide-eyed and panic-stricken. Strands of red hair clung to his forehead. His pupils were the size of nickels. He looked exhausted. Jesus, what sort of drugs was he really on? I knew he had his prescriptions, but God only knew how they interacted with each other.
“Alright, alright,” I said. “I’ll go look.”
“Straight up. Legit. Go look.” Shane looked terrified. He ran into his room, slammed the door, and locked it behind him. I went downstairs and opened the front door. There was no one there. I went to the back door, opened it, and looked around. No robber, ex-girlfriend, or sugar daddy anywhere in sight.
Since I was already awake and had to be at class in two hours, I decided I was up for the day. I sat in a chair on our back patio and lit a cigarette. Just then, I heard the side gate open and saw the beam of a flashlight coming around the side of the house. I didn’t move. The beam settled on me. Police cars arrived in front and I heard what could have only been a police dog barking.
Shane had called the police on himself, telling 911 dispatch there were people in our backyard, waiting to shoot him. Speaking to Shane, the cops realized he was hallucinating and asked him to go to the hospital to get some rest. Shane eventually relented and went with them to the VA hospital.
The police asked me some basic questions and took down my information. Once finished, I went to my room and went back to sleep. When I got up an hour later, Shane had left me a note. He was under observation at the VA hospital near UCSD. I didn’t see Shane until later that afternoon. He ended up walking out of the hospital without checking out and hitchhiked home from La Jolla.
Hospital staff had done a urinalysis and the doctor told him, “If your dose is Nevada, you just pissed the entire United States.”
He had been abusing his prescriptions — to the point of psychosis. He had been hallucinating for days. He had no clue as to what was real — and what wasn’t.
When Shane got home, he wasn’t completely sober yet. He was still paranoid and asked me, “Did you fuck Bo?” I reminded him that I’d only met her once — when she showed me the room I ended up renting. Not to mention the fact that I found her revolting.
Following his hospital visit, he ate, and when he finally went to sleep he went down for 12 or 13 hours.
As soon as he woke, he apologized. He seemed fully cognizant of what had transpired over the course of the week. “I’m so sorry, man,” he said. “I know how fucked up I’ve been.”
Did he, though? I thought this but didn’t say it. He had been completely out of his mind. The drugs, designed to help, had ended up hurting him. They only exacerbated his pain and paranoia. He was so accustomed to taking a pill to feel better that he grew dependent on them. I found out later that he started snorting them. Now, due to his episodes, they were probably going to be taken away.
After being discharged and watching many of my friends go off and fight in Iraq and Afghanistan, I felt guilty about not being there with them. At the time, I supported the war blindly. My friends were in-country and I was working in a factory. What was I accomplishing? Nothing important. I made parts for Ford and Mazda. The factory manufactured bumpers for F-150s and painted them every possible factory hue — even the special Harley-Davidson edition orange. Working 60 or 70 hours per week kept me busy, but it didn’t give me the chance to do much else. For four months, I did nothing except operate a machine that fastened trailer hitches to rear bumpers. It was literally pushing a button — up and down — for 8 or 10 or 12 or 14 hours a day. I worked an entire summer without a day off. I had a slavish existence and it was hell. My life didn’t count.
In 2003 and 2004, before deploying, several of my friends who were reservists asked for my help with certain things while they were gone, such as paying bills for them, winterizing their cars, or keeping an ear to the ground to make sure their wives or girlfriends weren’t doing anything untoward. Unfortunately, the majority of these women didn’t behave themselves.
I made the decision to not tell my friends until they returned. They didn’t need the added stress while they were in a combat zone. Watching this happen brought back unwelcome memories for me. It was like watching a movie I’d seen before, but hoping for a different ending. I started dating a girl at the beginning of my senior year in high school. Denise (not her real name) came from a good Catholic family. I had been with her for my first year in the Marines, and she had come to Oceanside to visit me one week before I deployed to Egypt. I almost proposed when she did.
Three weeks into Egypt, I called her on a satellite phone late at night; I had no clue what time it was in Michigan when I called. “I just can’t do the long-distance thing,” she told me. “I don’t have the time or patience for it. We’re both young, and shouldn’t have to wait for something if it’s destined to be.”
“Is there someone else?” I asked.
“No, I’ve just been thinking a lot lately, and as much as I care about you, I just can’t handle this right now. But we can be friends.” She sounded like an overly polite and eager customer-service employee as she said the “friends” part.
The conversation was made even more awkward by the five- or six-second delay between one speaking and the other hearing, due to the satellite connection. I got the impression that it was no more important to her than ordering a pizza or getting the oil changed in her car — and probably took less time.
While I was turning down many opportunities to mess around in San Diego, it turned out that Denise had been cheating on me, almost from the day I had left for boot camp. I’d never once cheated on her. I had given her a ring when she visited me before deploying to Egypt. Not an engagement ring, but a promise ring, since we were too young to get married — but we had discussed it when she visited. I had bought her a beautiful gold necklace at a bazaar in Cairo two days before she’d broken it off, and had already mailed it out. It was the equivalent of one month’s pay.
I never got either one back. Maybe they’re still in some jewelry box, on top of some dresser she shares with some husband, buried under other jewelry, long forgotten. I sometimes wonder if she ever catches a glimpse of them, and where her mind goes when she does.
She probably pawned them.
After his breakdowns, Shane decided that he needed help. He began to attend Narcotics Anonymous meetings. He seemed genuine and began to speak in the vocabulary of a former addict: acceptance, apologies, making amends, powerlessness, a power greater than himself. He knew all 12 steps by rote — probably because his exes had been complete train-wrecks. They knew the routine, and he had absorbed their experiences. But Shane was a musician; he had an addictive personality that somehow attracted women.
“I need help, man,” he told me. I was glad for him. He seemed to finally be getting over his past relationships and traumas.
The VA doctors hadn’t canceled his prescriptions, for some reason, so he got them refilled without any issues or delays. Yet he wasn’t quite ready to flush his pills down the toilet. But he gave control of them to Rod, a nursing student, with strict instructions to only hand them out when he was in extreme pain, having anxiety, et cetera. Rod was told to only give him one at a time, and no more than that.
Shane decided to visit his family in Connecticut. He hadn’t seen them for five years. He was supposed to be there for two weeks but ended up calling and telling us that he was going to be staying for three. I was happy that he could spend some time with his family but was irritated that I had to take care of his cats, Lucy and Ellie, for the extra week.
When he did get back, he looked healthier. He’d gained 15 pounds in three weeks. His mom’s cooking had done him well. He was no longer wiry thin. His face wasn’t ruddy and he’d gotten some color back. His nerves seemed to have steadied, and he spoke more coherently and eloquently than he had before the trip. His eyes didn’t have the far-off stare. He was whole, complete.
“I haven’t taken a pill in three weeks,” he said. “I feel great. I’m just so ready to be done with this shit. They hurt more than they help.”
Shane became more active following his trip. He began rock climbing and going to the gym almost every night. He started to play music again. He showed me the girls hitting him up on Tinder.
He was more sober than I’d ever known him to be. He was happy. He actually had coffee with the ex-stripper. At least they were on speaking terms, and she’d also been sober for almost a month.
Shane’s sobriety lasted almost three weeks. He received his prescriptions by mail, and when his Adderall arrived, he didn’t give it to Rod to dispense. Shane kept it and began abusing it again. I didn’t realize this until he began talking about the fiancée again. He claimed to have evidence that she had been a prostitute and she was sleeping with a neighbor, Rod, and myself, among others.
He was hallucinating, walking around with the machete again. The other roommates and I tried to calm him down, but Shane wasn’t having any of it. He claimed that the fiancée was in one of our bedrooms. He was convinced the neighbors (a nice old Filipino couple) were trying to kill him.
Finally, he went into his room. I assumed he was done for the night and tried to go to sleep. I was woken up by Shane wandering around the upstairs hallway, crying and rolling around on the floor, punching and kicking the walls. He ended up knocking on my door seven times that night, but I stopped answering after the third time, when he asked me if Bo was in my room.
Shane ended up in the VA hospital again.
The other roommates and I talked afterward, and we all agreed that we couldn’t do it anymore. It was no longer a question of helping our friend. We didn’t feel safe.
Back to school
For the second time, I grew tired of living in small-town Michigan. In 2011, I had the opportunity to move back to San Diego, and couldn’t pass it up. I quit my job of four years, cashed in my 401(k), and jumped at the chance. I landed a job at a local company, and probably due to my military experience (or perhaps despite it), received several promotions, eventually joining management for an Inc. 500 company.
College seemed the next logical step. At 32 years of age, I registered for classes. The first year went perfectly. As a journalism major, I gained valuable experience and was well-served by the spelling-bee titles I’d won and the AP English classes I’d taken in high school. I ended up quitting the management job to focus on school full-time. Unfortunately, bills needed to be paid, and school was eventually accompanied by work. In San Diego, at least there is a means to an end.
I’m doing well for myself. Graduation is close enough to touch. There will be no painting of Ford parts in my future.
The other roommates and I broke the news to Shane on a rainy Tuesday night. His mood mirrored the weather, and he appeared to take the news as a personal insult, despite our numerous attempts to help him. He refused to pay his rent for the month, telling us he’d be out the next day. He was true to his word. Shane packed up all of his belongings and his musical equipment in his Suburban in less than four hours and left without saying goodbye.
The last time I saw him, he was pulling out of the driveway in his Suburban with a bad head gasket. There are 2800 miles between San Diego and Connecticut. I hope he made it home.