The bypass around Syracuse, New York, was quicker than expected. It was there I heard the unmistakeable voice of the Cannonball, a deep voice made of rusty nails and gravel. We were both heading in the same direction, the Big Apple, New York City itself. I had a large client in New York. Their offices were located in Saddlebrook, New Jersey, just a short distance from downtown New York. The Cannonball drove a big rig and I drove a brand new Camaro. Our next truckstop was in Binghamton. I had just bought a CB radio, and even though by 1972, the airwaves were already filled with too many users, I still managed to enjoy conversations with my trucker friends. They were and always have been welcome companions on the open road, especially during long drives, drives I have become famous for. There was nothing like an all-day, all-night drive from Toronto to New York and years later from British Columbia to Ontario.
I tried one more time to contact by good buddy with "Break One-Oh for the Cannonball."
"Go ahead, you got the break," replied the Cannonball.
"Ah, ten-four," I continued. "You got the one Big Gee, and we be doin’ southbound on 81. First heard you in Buffalo town. What's your twenty?"
His gravely and rusty voice growled.
"Just passed the 120 marker. Brush your teeth and comb your hair. There's a Smokey in the grass taking pictures."
I heeded his warning and slowed enough to hit the legal limit as I passed a highway patrol car in the median. He was “taking pictures” with his radar.
Our conversation was joined by a number of other truckers, and soon I was part of a convoy heading for New York. As his voice roared over the radio, a picture began to grow in my mind. The Cannonball had to be over six feet tall with big arms, kinda like a mountain man, tough as nails. In Binghamton I pulled into a large truckstop. The night was late and dark. As I got out of my car, the prospect of a hearty hot dinner loomed before me. Suddenly, a huge black rig pulled into the parking lot. The rig was a eighteen-wheeler with a miriad of lights that made the whole affair look rather ominous. We called them “Christmas trees.” On the door of the cab was written in silver and red letters, "Cannonball." I stood frozen in my tracks. Should I introduce myself as Big Gee? What if he was a crusty sourdough? The door to his cab opened and out climbed the Cannonball. He couldn't have been more than five foot five. I swear he had to sit on a stack of phonebooks to look out the window to see the road. He was kinda wimpy looking with a blotched red face. This was no Cannonball. I ate my burger and fries alone.
I started long distance driving essentially out of necessity. The agency was doing a lot of work in Ottawa, and I soon discovered the drive was a spectacular one. Often Joe would fly and I picked him up at the Ottawa airport. After a few years, I managed to handle most of the Ottawa accounts myself, at least most of the time. In 1974, when we bought Ardiel Advertising Limited, Canada's oldest advertising agency, the deal came with an office and staff in Ottawa. The scenic drive along the 401 east to Kingston and then north on Highway 15 to Ottawa, became a bi-weekly affair. The routine was simple. Catch traffic out of Toronto before rush hour to arrive in Ottawa around dinner time. I always stayed in the same place at the Talisman Motor Inn. Once I settled in my room, I ordered room service, watched some TV, and reviewed my material for the next day. In the morning I met with my Ottawa staff, reviewed account performances, and checked the books. By ten in the morning I was at our first client and between ten and five that afternoon I usually managed to see all our big accounts such as External Affairs, the National Capital Commission, Dustbane Enterprises, Modern Building Cleaning Corporation, and Flakt, a large international engineering company.
Being a government town, Ottawa's rush hour was early, somewhere around three in the afternoon. Usually, by the time I left Ottawa for home, it was after five and the roads were quiet. After a quick stop at the Balderson Cheese Factory to buy big chunks of delicious cheddar and Gouda ( Alice and the children loved fresh cheese ), I was on my way home. Sometimes I drove back the long way, along Highway 7, savouring every moment as I drove into the setting sun. These were moments of extreme peace and joy, moments I would relive over and over again as the years accounted for well over one million kilometres on Canadian and American highways. But I have stopped counting the miles and kilometres.
Most distance driving was the result of clients who were located outside Toronto who, combined with my fear of flying, necessitated driving there and back. I looked forward to each drive. From shorts business trips to Ottawa and Saddlebrook, New Jersey, to family trips in Washington, DC, and to sandy beaches on the Atlantic Ocean, in such special places as Carolina Beach, Cape Hatteras, Kill Devil Hills, and Atlantic Beach, my mind became a treasury of wonderful images and experiences. Despite the occasional intrusion of an anxiety attack, the trips were a genuine escape from the fears of life.
One wet and grey November Friday, in 1975, I phoned Alice from my office and asked if she could arrange for a babysitter that night and for the entire weekend. It was a wonderfully impulsive moment. Our neighbours agreed to look after Jeff and Wendy. They were really good kids and easy to take care of. We headed for the interior of North Carolina and Pennsylvania, managing to drive through the heart of coal mine country, the Great Smokey Mountains, and the Appalachians. However, I did panic when we decided to take a guided tour of limestone caverns. When the guide began his presentation of stalagmites and stalagtites, barely a few feet into the bowels of that dark dank cave, I panicked and left. Alice finished the tour while I waited outside, glad to be above ground.
I am neither a mechanic nor very knowledgeable about the inner workings of the automobile, but throughout my years of driving I have developed an appreciation for beautiful cars - that is, an artistic appreciation. My taste for beautiful cars had its roots in the design of the car, not the perceived public image that came with it. I never believed I would get a statuesque blond when I bought a new muscle-car. Many automobiles are impressive works of art. During my art college years, my friend and roommate Peter De Haan, often asked me to help him design and draw concept cars, a requirement of his industrial design course at art college. I was well acquainted with the incredible flow of line and shape, the forms, and the highlites of great automobile design. Nevertheless, taste is a personal thing and my taste in cars has remained as such - very personal. For eighteen years, between 1969, when I bought my first car, a used Ford Mustang, and 1978, I traveled over 550,000 kilometres, consuming the highways in a succession of cars that included the Ford Mustang, two Chevrolet Camaro's, a Mercury Cougar, a Volkswagen Beetle, a Dodge Colt stationwagon, a Pontiac Safari stationwagon, a hilarious Volkswagon bus, a full-size Ford Van, a delapitated Toyota Corolla and a shiny white Ford Thunderbird with a T-Bar roof. Most of the time we had two cars. One was my personal business car, the others were family vehicles. It does not take rocket science to figure which was which. In addition to this lot, I occasionally rented a car for long trips.
The biggest and first of many long trips took place in 1978, when I drove across Canada with Joe. I have shared the account of that trip in my previous pages of "The Folio Years." From there I have traveled throughout Canada and the United States. As I write this venture, I have two distance adventures still to complete. One is a stretch of highway between Los Angeles, California, and Dallas, Texas. When I drive that stretch one day, I will have completed a "circle-tour" of the North American continent. The other adventure that remains is Alaska, a plausible adventure now that home is British Columbia. It will take some time, however, to persuade Alice to come along and join me in this Alaskan driving adventure. She would rather take the "Alaska Cruise" option to visit what is now called "the last frontier" of this spectacular continent.
The next fourteen years, between 1978 and 2001, I have driven at least another 500,000 kilometres including seven trips back and forth between Ontario and British Columbia. Alice joined me on many of these excursions. Some, such as Disneyland and Universal Studios in California, were with the whole family and later with Alisha and her daughter Ciaran, our godchild. Alice and also managed a roundtrip to Colorado Springs in 2003. I ponder the impact of all that driving as I read about my former business partner Fiona McCall, her husband Paul Howard, and daughter Penny, whose highways have been and are the open seas. The Monday, July 9, 2001, edition of the Toronto Star announced in full colour their departure for yet another sailing adventure. This time it was a two year trip around the world in their vessel Carpe Diem. I am, however, resigned ( with pleasure ) to the open road in my series of "vessels" that now include a 1987 GMC Safari Minivan with over 380,000 km on it, and a brief five-year season during which I owned a 1982 cadillac Fleetwood as well. After the Safari Minivan was totalled in April of 2001 by a speeding driver, a generous friend gave us a 1996 Ford Aerostar XLT Minivan.
For me, the open road is like defrag.
When I became computer friendly, I learned about a command called "defrag." As I commanded my computer to defrag, the entire system whirred, buzzed and groaned a lot amidst flashing images on my screen and a pale blue-green graphic with lots of little boxes with dots in them. As the computer searched all my files, it carefully rearranged them in the most efficient order. This defragged the computer and made it work better. I can best compare the process to a rearranging of my three-drawer home file cabinet. After months and years of pulling files out of the cabinet and putting them back in no particular order, I needed at times to go through all the files to keep important ones I used regularly up front, to keep research and record files in the middle, and to put distant-use, for ‘future consideration” files way behind the others. It was a good time to clean out individual files as well as throw out redundant files. All these files were spread over the contents of my three-drawer file cabinet, with the most used files in the top drawer.
Distance driving is my mental process of defragging the brain. The long and short distance trips remain my most reliable time to think and re-think programs, projects, and dreams. I cannot possibly begin to recount the many drawings and paintings that have been birthed during these drives. Probably most of my work, especially the philosophy of my creative journey, have their roots in distance driving. Some people fly, some sail, and others hike. I drive. A dear friend, Jack Jagt, thinks of one day fulfilling a dream of climbing Mount Kilimanjaro, the highest mountain in Africa, a towering 19,565 foot peak in north east Tanganyika. He will be sixty years old in 2002 and his doctors have said "no" to the dream. I can still say "yes" to my dreams of driving.
I dream of the Alaska Highway through British Columbia, Yukon, and Alaska to Anchorage. To complete my American adventure, my dreams also take me to the San Bernadino Valley outside Los Angeles, California, through Arizona and New Mexico, and to the Dallas, Ft.Worth metroplex in central Texas. Now that Angie and Jeff, and their daughter Haley, our grandaughter, live in Colorado Springs, I will need to make that pilgrimage too. We did in 2003. That leaves only Newfoundland and Prince Edward Island to complete my all-Canada tour. PEI now has a bridge so there is hope yet. Newfoundland will require either a flight to St.John's or a car ferry from somewhere in northeastern Quebec or Labrador.
I have been to the Arctic as well, but I did not drive. I flew to Rankin Inlet in 1992, because there were no roads north from Winnipeg to take me there. On March 3, 1992, I was made a member of Canada's Northwest Territories, in the Order of Arctic Adventurers, North of 60º Chapter. The official certificate says: "having demonstrated the initiative, integrity and bold adventurous spirit of the true Arctic explorers who have crossed the 60th Parallel."
Perhaps I love to drive because the call of the open road is also a shadow of yet another journey, namely that journey in search of a city not built with human hands, the city of God, which are the glimpses of eternity that I have seen through the eyes of faith in distant vistas and panoramic landscapes as I travel Canada's highways and the highways of our neighbours “south of the border.” These glimpses are recorded in my epic poem, “The City.”
I will never forget the Columbia Icefields Highway, between Lake Louise and Jasper, Alberta, or Highway 79C between Kelowna and Merritt, British Columbia. To these roads to freedom and the highways "North of Superior," as well as to scenic drives in Nova Scotia, Quebec, and the old King’s Highway in Ontario, I owe many a teary-eyed moment when I consider my future in the Kingdom of God.
With the price of gas these days, one may argue for the economics of such long drives, and as the years pass, I need to break up those all-day, all-night, and all-day drives with reasonable rests in good hotels. But I still dream of a luxury touring van like the one my dad used to have. I told him if he ever wanted to sell that silver Dodge Ram van, to let me know. It was in mint condition. But, without telling me, he traded it in for a Volkwagen Jetta. I was angry for a while but started dreaming soon after of my own touring van.
Clothes make the man
It is hard to imagine that I have survived some of the most spectacular reforms and revolutions in the fashion industry. When I left Wallaceburg for Toronto in 1964, to attend the Ontario College of Art & Design, fashion for a young man of nineteen was no more than conservative pants in non-descript browns and greys, short and long-sleeved shirts in prints and patterns, and a windbreaker jacket. Within weeks of arriving in the big city of " T-O," I bought a dark navy-blue corduroy school jacket. I could not afford leather. Emblazoned on the back were large white letters, declaring to all who saw me walk down the street, I was student at the Ontario College of Art. On one upper sleeve were the initials OCA, on the other the graduation date of 68. The jacket was lined with a red plaid fabric. I still have that jacket. It hangs reverently in my closet. But in September of 1964, my new image had begun. My persona of "artist" was birthed. I'll never forget the day I returned for a visit to my family in Wallaceburg. I strutted proudly down main street showing everyone I was no longer a member of this farmtown tribe. Soon afterwards the image was completed with black leather jackboots, brown corduroy pants, a black turtleneck, and a beautiful sheepskin jacket with a soft imitation-fur lining. I let my hair grow very long. Under my arm I carried the telltale OCA vinyl drawing portfolio, and below the portfolio a metal toolbox dangled precariously from my hand. I could not afford the handsome and professional black presentation portfolios or the beautiful brown wooden painter's box that many other students sported through the city and on subways and streetcars. Nevertheless, phase one of my make-over was complete. It lasted until 1968.
During the summer of 1968, my hair length was extended to below the neck and rested on my shoulders. It was an image fitting for the up-and-coming success of a new kid on the block of commercial design studios. I wore white polyester bellbottom pants, green and orange silk shirts, and a large shiny olive-green scarf with a gold clasp. On my left hand I wore both a wide gold wedding ring and a solid silver designer ring. My watch was stretched over a wide maroon leather wrist strap. A tan polyester "Safari Jacket" completed the upper image of my wardrobe. On my feet I wore either my high-cut maroon or black "Beetle Boots." When I attended business meetings I usually toned down a bit to include tweed jackets, dress-shirts with wide and bright ties, an occasional wool pull-over or my favourite bulk-knit sweater. Regardless of my outlandish or conservative wardrobe, I was a stickler for cleanliness and hygene. My clothes were laundry-fresh at all times, pressed and very clean. I always wore deoderant and a special aftershave or cologne, that made both Alice and many others exclaim, "you smell nice, Gerrit." I loved smelling nice. Still do. I have never appreciated those who advocated natural body odours, especially when those odours were down-to-earth, medieval versions of neanderthal spice, you know the type, old leather mixed with clothes that never see a washing machine, and the accumulated smells of day-old and week-old sweat and other body odours. Phase two lasted until 1974.
By 1974, I began to settle at last into a post-Carnaby Street era of T-shirts, blue jeans, and sweatshirts for casual wear, and three-piece suits for business attire. Fine wools replaced polyester and colours became quieter and more peaceful. My hair was trimmed to below the ears and all-in-all, the image was really me. I felt very comfortable the way I dressed and looked. Dress suits hung in the closet where I kept them for business meetings and official functions, but it took many years to get rid of two favourite articles of clothing, remnants of the phase two years. They were a handsome, custom-made, burgundy leather, hip-length, sleeveless, leather vest or "waistcoat," and my rust-coloured, custom-tailored "Edwardian" suit. I admit, I looked pretty impressive as a six-and-a-half foot adult, dressed in my rust-coloured wool suit with a long tapered jacket that flared over the waist in typical Edwardian waistcoat fasion, and tightly tapered pants that clung to my legs just above a special pair of beautiful, high-soled, burgundy leather boots.
Today, however, as I spend most of my time in my island studio, my wardrobe has been reduced to jeans, black and brightly-coloured T-shirts, big and bulky sweatshirts and running shoes. A double-breasted suit hangs in the closet, left there after my daughter Angela married Jeff Jaggard in July of 1999, and waiting for the next daughter or son to be married. The suit reappeared from the closet on February 23, 2002, when Karen married Doug Jordan. Shoulder and winter seasons are my favourite, stretching from late September to early May. I love to bury myself in my denim jacket, line it with a hooded sweatshirt, and top it with a wool sailor's cap or black baseball cap, which along with the standard-issue jeans and high running shoes amounts to hase three of the artist formely known as hippie.
I would be remiss, however, if I did not add the fact that I had an accomplice during all these phases of my fashion world. Her name is Alice, my wife. She was seen on many occasions and for many years to wear halter-tops, mini-skirts, fishnet nylons, and a beautiful "Mary-Ann Faithful" hair style with long straight blond hair. She may be too shy to admit it, but she turned heads of many a man, but those turns did not affect her. She was and remains a stable woman of great self-confidence. However, as the years were frequented by many months of maternity wear, somehow the image of a mini-skirt and pregnancy did not fit her style. She has remained blond for most of her life, with varying degrees of shades, as well as a brief interlude of brown. Lately, copper-coloured hair seems to look very nice on her.
One might argue my need to account for such a descriptive wardrobe in an autobiographical account of my life, but then you have not have been in our living room on dark winter evenings when we pulled out the family slides, to know why this account is most suitable. To the sheer delight of everyone, we gawk and laugh at the images, so much so, that thirty years later we still want to see the slides every winter. And when we do, we nearly fall off the sofa laughing as slides appear with dad sporting his phase cwo clothes, and mom in her bra-less, tanned and blond years. We may have said in those days, "foxy" and "groovy," but my children and any guests present quietly admitted, "pretty cool."
And why not! The fasion industry may have succeeded in convincing consumers that clothes make the man or the woman, but despite the illusions, it feels good to dress in colours and fabrics that accentuate the costume of life. After all, my career as an advertising executive and my personal journey as a fine artist, were and continue to be steeped in a palette of rich colours, an array of bold design and composition, not to mention a battery of techniques, and a never-ending supply of surfaces to draw and paint on. I cannot escape the colours that surround me, the textures that please the skin, the shapes that appeal to my eyes, and the joy of putting them together in a drawing, a painting, a poem or some other writing, or even in a "fashion statement" that has hopefully matured through three phases, to be me.
A New Life
The year I began writing this account of my life was the year in which I also celebrated an event of perhaps as great a joy as the day I married my wife Alice in 1967. It was twenty years ago, during the summer of 1981, that I was "born again." Even though that little phrase "born again" has caused more confusion than I care to remember, I nevertheless experienced a dramatic new birth. Regrettably, I have seen the words "born again" waved like a magic wand in my face as if "born again" was some celebrity status, or some ID card for special club membership. Others insist that after one has repeated a short "sinner's prayer," presto, one has arrived into the hallowed halls of spirituality, no further repairs needed. Some even go so far as to stress that being "born again" is the same as church membership. That little phrase launched an entire evangelism movement in which people spent more time counting the numbers of those who "got saved" than preparing those new to the faith for life in the Kingdom of God. For some, if one could not pin the event to an exact day and hour, one was not really born again.
Regardless of misleading interpretations of being "born again," what exactly did happen in 1981, when I was born again? One of the simplest answers is to say an event took place that radically changed my life from one ofinability to a life of ability. In other words, what I could not do before, I now was able to do. But how? By giving my life to someone who would not only help me, but turn the very course of my life around. He is none other than Jesus Christ. But how you ask? How did I experience a spiritual rebirth in a temporal life?
Permit me to try and explain.
Suffice it to say my life was an overwhelming example of inability. Needless to say, I was able to provide for my familty. I was able to do my work, build a national advertising agency, serve the community in numerous volunteer service organizations, and along with my wife raise our children. My life included a journey on the road of fine arts, as well as mundane tasks of cutting the lawn and shoveling snow. All these I could do. Precisely what was I so un-able to do? I was unable to deal with the real effects of a major nervous breakdown which resulted in depression, anxiety, fear, pressure, and ultimately a fear of death.
I will never forget the many anxieties of those terrifying years from 1971, to 1981. Some of those anxieties I have already shared. To prevent my inabilities from seriously affecting my abilities I took Valium each day, additional sleeping pills at night, as well as a generous supply of alcohol and tobacco. I have already explained some of the terrors of that time, so I need not go into further detail to explain the horrible nights of panic, the paralyzing effects of an anxiety attack, and the grinding fear of another nervous breakdown, like the one I suffered in 1971. Then there was the numbing consolation of alcohol, only to wake up and realize I didn't escape the day's gauntlet. It was still there, waiting for me just as it was yesterday.
One summer night, I came to a grinding halt. My finely-tuned system of coping began to crumble. I had known about Jesus Christ, God, and the Bible, because I grew up in a religious home and church environment. But the truth of a personal relationship with Jesus I had never experienced. That summer night I lay at the foot of another nervous breakdown and I made a desperate attempt to reach out to God. I didn't pray a formula. I didn't follow a procedure. I simply buried my face in my pillow and gasped, "Jesus, help! Come into my life!"
I began to sob uncontrolably as He came into my life. How? I didn't really know how during that moment, but it was His Spirit who came into me and birthed in my heart and in my mind, an awareness that something awesome, something new, had taken place.
I must begin, however, in Sauble Beach.
Sauble Beach remains in my memory as one of the most incredible places on earth. The beach, situated on Lake Huron's sandy eastern shores along Ontario's Bruce Penninsula, may not compare in grandeur and size to the Pacific West coast, but for memories it outstrips all other ventures. It was at Sauble Beach where I saw my children grow from tiny tots into young women and young men. All that amidst soft sandy beaches, clear cool water, fish-and-chips, and spectacular sunsets. There were many days when my skin trembled from a day's exposure to the sun only to be kissed by cool evening breezes off the lake. Despite years of tranquilizers, anxiety, and pain, Sauble Beach always was a place of retreat. The summer of 1981, promised to be yet another great summer in our rented cottage. There was, however, one major difference. After ten years of tranquilizers, I suddenly got fed up with being enslaved to them. In part, this was because I had always believed Dr.McEwan and our family doctor, who said Valium was not addictive. Now I realized they were wrong. I had been addicted to a large dosage of pills for ten years. I was disappointed with myself. I felt a failure. Therefore I made a decision that our holiday at Sauble Beach would be a perfect time to "kick the habit."
I began my total withdrawal on Saturday, August 8, 1981. A careful record of my decision was kept in my sketchbook journal as each day came and went. Torrential rains had fallen all day as we left for Sauble Beach. By the time we entered Bruce County, the rain had stopped, yet threatened to start all over again as it clung in large shredded clouds, looking like long hurried rags soaked beyond saturation, passing from town to town as we threaded our way north. The usual drive of two-and-a-half hours, took nearly twice as long. Orangeville was a lunch stop-over, and when we finally stepped into our cottage at four in the afternoon, we were glad to have made it. The kids were terrific throughout the entire trip. Jeff was eleven, Wendy nine, Angela five, and Karen two. The following Sunday morning a lazy sun began to make brief appearances. Winds climbed with the temperature. In my sketchbook I wrote: day one without tranquilizers. After a good day and a good barbeque, complemented by some good home-made white wine, a Spanish white from 1978, the day quickly settled into an early retirement. Both Karen and Angie fell out of bed twice. Our bed was two feet too short and the mattress was lumpy, but for the rest of the night everyone remained peaceful.
Monday was a day of sun, sun, more sun, and sunburns. I was and still am amazed when I look on a beach crowd, how many young people try to look old and how many old people try to look young. I was thirty-six, Alice was thirty-three. Day two without tranquilizers became a major event as the van needed to have its brakes repaired, an unwelcome and unplanned expense. Alice and I did a lot of talking, a practise very common to our journey together. The size of our family, now four children, was a favourite topic. Not until 1984, and 1987, when Suzanne and Matthew were born, was this energetic topic put to rest. But the day was not over yet. My heart skipped more than one beat as I opened the cottage door only to find Karen right behind it. I couldn't catch her. She fell down two concrete stairs. As if her pain and bloody bruises were not enough, supper was fly-ridden and in the distance, thunder rumbled to signal more rain on my parade. Tuesday was more of the same weather but fortunately there were no more accidents. On Wednesday Alice burned her arm in the steam of an electric kettle and the brake repair on the van totalled one hundred and six dollars. As the wind settled down in the evening, I began to feel pressure rising. It had been four days without a single tranquilizer.
By now I would have taken at least sixteen of the little yellow helpers. While I taught my children to draw figures and objects during a makeshift workshop in the cottage, I was reminded of a dream I once had in 1968, a dream to be an art teacher. Thursday afternoon, after a pancake breakfast, the threat of more rain, and memories of better days, things began to close in on me. I could not stop thinking about six days without tranquilizers. At one in the afternoon I capitulated and took half a pill, 5 mg of Valium. I felt terribly guilty. Guilt crept through every vein in my body. The next few days included short excursions to "The Old Indian Church," a Weslean Centenary church built in 1891, on the Saugeen Indian Reservation in Southhampton, just a short drive from Sauble Beach. I went by myself to draw and paint. Sitting in the sun on the sloped hills just beside the church, offered not only a magnificent view of the Saugeen River as it slowly snaked towards Lake Huron, it also offered some relief from the pressure. The result was two beautiful watercolours. More rain followed. On Sunday I took another Valium. Another on Tuesday. On Friday, two weeks after we came to Sauble Beach, we finally "broke camp" for home. Both Alice and I agreed the vacation was a success. I was left, however, with my private pain of having failed to "kick the habit." Was I destined to spend the rest of my life enslaved to those miserable little demons?
Early on Saturday morning of August 22, I slipped into another big anxiety attack.
The clock said 2:00 am. Outside it was still night.
I panicked as it felt like a repeat of my nervous breakdown ten years earlier. I woke with a jolt and sat upright, terrified. The room started to spin and everything began to fade before my eyes. Was this judgment for not having taken Valium? Should I have kept my regular daily dosage? It seemed all systems were backfiring. I thought death was imminent. This was real and not imagined. Like the dying white spot as it diminishes on an old black & white television when turned off, so I felt my life slipping from me.
I woke Alice. My voice trembled.
"Please pray for me, I am dying," I blurted out at two in the morning.
She did. The terror stopped instantly.
Suddenly I knew what to do.
I cried in my pillow as I asked Jesus to come into my life.
Immediately I became aware that someone else was there with me, even though I could not put words or clear thoughts to the awareness. I needed comfort, help, assurance, and a feeling that life had far greater goals than just earthly accomplishments, as wonderful as those may be. That is when I felt His presence. Jesus compared the experience to being "born again," in other words, starting all over again with a brand new life and a life with Him. In the weeks that followed the effects of my new birth were obvious. Where I had fear I now had assurance I would not die. When anxiety came I knew I could talk to someone who did not judge me or ridicule me for having feelings that others thought to be just imaginary. He knew my nervous breakdown and anxiety attacks were as real as the leaves on trees in midsummer. I discovered I could talk to Jesus just as I would talk to a friend. When I needed strength for some big decisions I could find peace were there was none. He became as real to me as my best friend. Even in His physical absence, His spiritual presence was nevertheless tangible and very real. I developed a great thirst for truth. I became a disciple in His Kingdom and a student of the Bible.
Six months after that special experience, I threw out all my pills, all my alcohol and all my tobacco. As I write about these events, I realize it has been over twenty years since I had any of them. Needless to say, today's problems still spill over into tomorrow and life is not free from disappointments, accidents, and other "thorns in the flesh." But one thing I know for sure, after twenty years of being "born again," I really don't mind if others don't quite understand what the words mean, or what others may think my "experience" was, such as just some emotional release or existential high.
Some may think that was the day I got all religious. Others treat the experience as a passing fad. Neverthless, I was there the night it happened. Alice was there as well. I was there during that summer night in 2001, when I could not quit a ten-year, never-ending battle with drug dependency. I was in my bedroom that night, when through Jesus I could. I was there the night He set me free. No one can take that away - ever.
It was time to start a fresh new sketchbook on this new day in my life.