As the City Lights Burned the Nighttime Sky Bright

I stabilized while smoking cigarettes on the porch of a halfway house in October, 2009. I knew I had a job. I was laying brick patios for $8.50 an hour, but I was supposed to be teaching an Intro to Critical Thinking course at a small college in Northern New Jersey. Somehow, the school year had already started, and I was still in Richmond, Virginia. I’d been through all this before, but this was the worst it had ever been.

My nights were spent sleepless on top of my bed sheets in my single room in that halfway house, staring at the shadows on the ceiling, deconstructing my entire life. I couldn’t figure out what had gone so wrong. There was one thing I was certain of this time, though – this was my fault. My current predicament had nothing to do with my early childhood development, my parents’ divorce, or my mom’s solitary raising of me. It had nothing to do with either of my stepdads or their personal demons. It had nothing to do with my grandfather. It had nothing to do with my culture other than how I had interpreted it. My father’s death wasn’t even the cause of this. I was in that halfway house only because of me.

As a prerequisite for staying in that place, I had to attend an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting every night. I’d been going to those meetings off and on for nearly twenty years by then. I’d put together three years clean three times. In fact, a mere five months earlier I’d been steadily approaching my four-year anniversary for the third time since I’d turned 15 in 1991. Once again, I hadn’t made it to that milestone. But for the first time ever when I tried getting a hold on it, not even AA made any sense to me.

Everybody was talking about God, and I couldn’t understand. I tried rewording that program’s 12 steps with words I could comprehend. Because the simple words the founders had originally chosen were just too complex. They said – Came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity. That was gibberish. As far as I could tell, a Power greater than me had driven me insane. And the psychiatrists said, once again, that wasn’t even the case. There was absolutely nothing.

Five months earlier, as June was drawing to a close, I was in the middle of visiting my family for a short summer break from New York City in Richmond. I’d finished all my papers from my second semester of grad school, and I was starting to put together a syllabus for that Intro to Critical Thinking course I’d been hired to teach in the fall. I crossed my legs in lotus position to meditate one night, a regular habit I’d been practicing since before I’d even gotten clean that last time in DC back in August of 2005. And that’s when it happened. That’s when I broke… again.

You know Who I am, Gabriel,” the voice started in my stomach. It coursed through my limbs until becoming audible.

Staring blankly at the wall in front of me, my heavily lidded eyes half-closed, I nodded. I’d met this voice before in college, long before any sort of mood disorder or mental illness had ever colored my mind, making itself undeniably manifest to me. This voice was familiar. This voice was true, and I knew it wasn’t me.

You know what you have to do now, Gabriel,” the voice continued.

Without breaking my spine’s concentrated position, again I nodded. Unlike when I’d been in college, today I had a name for the voice. This was the Hindu conception of Brahman speaking audibly. I was to be The Angel Gabriel, to live the earthly life of Maitreya, the Buddha-to-be, by going out from the homeowner’s life into homelessness.

When I stood back up, pins and needles shooting through my legs’ discomfort, I took the anti-psychotic medication I’d been taking regularly since my last psychotic break in Charlottesville right before my dad passed away. With the medication coursing through my system, I knew this time the voice was real. And that meant – it was time. I knew exactly what I had to do.

Taking long walks through the woods, going for hours long drives around the Virginia countryside, I contemplated this proposition for about a week. But when CNN was busy broadcasting the news that Michael Jackson had just died, I knew the moment had finally arrived. The King of Pop was our true father – the first to come, the first to leave. I called my mom into the living room I’d been walking circles around while manically putting together playlists that could sing the world into existence through my week of sleepless nights. I told her, “Mom, I need to go into the psych ward.”

Slowly, she sat down on the couch. Concern spread through her happy face as she set her palms down on her thighs. “Why’s that, Gabriel?” she asked.

I told her, “I’m hearing voices again, Mom.” But I didn’t tell her my plan. I needed to get into that psych ward.

I couldn’t keep anything straight. I was on so much medication in the hospital. People flittered in front of my face and disappeared. In a land of phantoms, I battled the Hindu goddess Kali. Putting her to sleep with my embrace, I awoke as Shiva. I wound up in a padded room. That wasn’t the first time that had happened. A week later, the doctors decided I was stable. Nobody met me at the exit. The nurse who’d discharged me gave me cab fare. In my hands, I held my bag and a prescription to get filled on the ride home. I didn’t feel like taking the taxi waiting for me. I told the cabbie I wasn’t the patient he was looking for, and against his protestations, I headed out across the parking lot.

My mom’s home was down a winding path to the left. If I turned right, I’d head straight into the city of Richmond. Following the advice of a previous AA sponsor, I turned right, kept straight and threw that prescription away at the first trash can I came across.

Finally free, I strolled up the sidewalk. The city’s downtown skyline loomed in the distance at the end of the road. I nodded to every soul I passed. My ministry began that day, an eternity in preparation for just one moment. A man approached to ask for a cigarette. I gave him one, and he wondered, “What’s in that bag?”

“All I own,” I told him.

“You got a Bible in that bag?” he asked.

I told him I didn’t.

“Oh. I usually carry a Bible in my bag,” he said.

“Wish I had one, friend,” I told him.

“You don’t have one?” he asked me. “You look like a prophet. I thought you might have one.”

“Not today,” I said.

“Well, come with me,” he said. “I’ll give you one.”

I went back with him to where he lived at his mother’s house. Of my own free will, I gave him my wallet and my money, keeping only an ID card with a rubber band in case I collected anything else. He never asked me for anything, and he thanked me for my kindness. I traded him for a smaller bag with a shoulder strap making it easier to carry, but he couldn’t find that Bible.

“I’ll tell you what,” he said to me. “I’m gonna put a Bible right in this here bag you gave to me, and next time I see you, I’m gonna give that Bible to you. You’re on a journey. That’s right, a journey,” he said.

I nodded, but I never saw that man again. He told me he was a minister. Right then, I knew I’d chosen the correct path.

Taking up on a corner down in Richmond’s bar district that night, I spent the early evening asking people only to please give what they could spare. I scrounged up just enough change to get a couple hot dogs at this place across the street, and I knew the Lord was watching over me.

As the night drew on, I realized I needed to find a safe place to sleep. I hiked underneath a long bridge heading back to Southside where my mom lived, and I searched out a safe spot underneath there to make a bed. Beside a lonely, little outcrop of rocks overlooking the James River, I set my bag down and pulled out some clothes to make a pillow to sit on. I crossed my legs in the lotus position, and I meditated as the city lights burned the nighttime sky bright in the darkness across from me.

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