By Karen Beck
In 1984, I was voted “Most Unforgettable” by my graduating high school class located in Pittsford, NY a rather affluent suburb of Rochester. The town was full of attitude, lacking in kindness. 34 years later I am not so sure I see this superlative as a compliment, but rather as an offhanded way of pointing out my “otherness” and ushering me to the margins, the edges, to the fringe. By the age of 17 I was being clearly directed by my peers and elders alike to what St. Paul called “the ends of the Earth.” In retrospect, I can see how I earned the title and the social position by becoming an active alcoholic at age 14 and a chain-smoking, wise-cracking outlaw philosopher following my sister’s suicide in 1980. I was 13 years old when she died. Un-grieved grief calloused my heart and froze my soul into what could at best be called the bleakest and most extreme agnosticism if not outright cynical atheism.
Despite excellent academic standing, I had no desire to attend university. Before setting foot on any campus, I had dubbed universities in general as “brick and mortar diploma mills,” and most adults as “banal caricatures of themselves.” A hardcore, if a bit obsessed, Bruce Springsteen fan since age 12, I had my heart set on working at an only dreamed-of diner somewhere in Oklahoma waiting tables and playing guitar in a white-washed railroad shack. This was a path that had grit. It had soul. It had heart. I chickened out in the end, and headed to the University at Albany where I majored in alcoholism and minored in general malaise and dissidence. I was generally clueless about life in general, more so than the average twenty-something and a strident loner to boot.
My stance as an outsider, coupled by a less than despairing outlook deepened and led me to a suicide attempt in February of my senior year, although my name appeared steadily on the Dean’s list and my involvement in committees, clubs and the campus paper were extensive. Albany, New York is a city self-designated as a closet of sorts—one in which I stored my skeletons and a very few dusty gems of hard-earned and easily-lost wisdom. It is a closet in which I hid and rattled until ‘coming out’ in 2014 when I married Amy Chaney in a feverish elopement in Provincetown, Massachusetts. Due to her patience and love, and a shared faith in love and mercy, we are still married today and each morning we convene for coffee, conversation and meditation.
Ironically, the 1988 suicide attempt (my one and only) was accompanied by my first palpable spiritual experience (one of many.) An unusual and primary encounter with the Divine, both in timing and in nature. Voices were heard; visions were beheld. Most distinctly , I recall a spark of blue light emanating form my self-inflicted wounds, scars of which I wear as a sort of spiritual triptych to this day. The pain that initiates such self-destruction is enormous, and the burdensome sense of guilt left in its wake is haunting and chilling. The amount of effort it took to rebuild the trust of others and myself was Herculean.