For my last grad class we are reading classic poetry and I happened upon a poem by Walt Whitman called To a Stranger from his masterpiece Calamus. After reading it for the first time, it didn’t really grab my attention, but after discussing the poem as a class and being enlightened by other English minds–the poem definitely resonated with me.
Coping with my illness hasn’t been easy, sometimes I feel like I’m doomed and I refer to my psychotic experiences as being part of my plight. The biggest hurdle I had to overcome early on was letting go of my past. During my rambunctious teenage years, I hung with a fast crowd and did fast things. I drank too much, slept too little and experimented too much. As a result, I was disillusioned and confused as a young man.
I realized early on in my recovery that my old friends, guys who still drink heavily, were in fact triggers and sources of stress that hindered my continued recovery. As a result, I cut ties with almost all of them. I don’t know if this was a harsh decision. I probably would have found a way to cope with having them around if I really tried, but the easy way out in this case was my way out.
I miss them. I’ve seen one or two of them on the street in the city at different times and was forced to completely ignore them. How strange that felt, for both of us if they in fact saw me too. I stopped calling them or contacting them and my only interaction with the old group of guys was at our ten-year high school reunion two years ago, and at a friend’s golf outing once a summer.
Then this poem struck me and it captivated the way I feel about these lost and fractured relationships. Whitman wrote:
“You grew up with me, were a boy with me or a girl with me,/I ate with you and slept with you, your body has become not yours/only nor left my body mine only,/You give me the pleasure of your eyes, face, flesh, as we pass, you take/of my beard, breast, hands in return,/I am not to speak to you, I am to think of you when I sit alone or/wake at night alone,/I am to wait, I do not doubt I am to meet you again,/I am to see to it that I do not lose you.”
A lot of my fellow students said that they thought Walt was creepy by writing all of this about a stranger, but a few felt that maybe he knew the subject of this poem. That was how I read it, that he knew the person he was writing about but had damaged their relationship so irreparably that he couldn’t even bring himself to interact with him/her.
I have dreams where I’m walking through my old high school cafeteria and I pass a table that is occupied by all of my old buddies. I look at them, they look at me and I just raise up and hand and say, “hi,” and then walk off. Is there still a connection? Is there still a bond between some of us, any of us? Has time and my psychotic past damaged the relationships irreparably? I don’t know the answer to any of those questions.
The only way to find the answer is to try to rekindle these ancient connections. I think about coming forth to the old guys with everything I’ve been through, my run-ins with the law, my multiple trips across country, my peculiar behavior, but what good would it do? I still have to sit at bars with them and stare at my glass of water while they pound Vodka and Red Bull. I still have to stand idly by while they pick a fight with the guys standing at the pool table. I’m not that person anymore, nor will I ever be.
So my contact with the old guys is through my words on this page. It is an inhuman contact, one that once was but will probably never be again. How sad that makes me. I think of them like Uncle Walt does his stranger; we once were companions but now mere faceless memories.