Author’s note: This story was told to me from a personal acquaintance who wishes to remain anonymous. If parts of his story resonate with you and you wish to be put in contact with him, please reach out to me (see contact details in my Author Profile at the bottom of this article).
I touched his body.
I already knew he was dead but I had to do it.
I didn’t feel any of the feelings I expected to feel. No grief. No sadness. No anger. Just curiosity.
I touched him again. Yep, still dead.
I didn’t realize how significant this moment would be to my life, in ways I did not even expect.
I didn’t know that nearly a decade later, I would still be processing its impact on my life.
Because right at that moment, I felt very little.
Yes, we were at war.
And yes, at war, people die.
And yes, in war you can do everything right and people will die, or you can do everything wrong and everyone lives.
But the truth is, he died because of me.
At least, that was the thought that would go on endless replay in my mind for the next ten years.
It’s amazing how vividly I remember that day — the unrelenting heat of the sun beating down on us, the dryness in my mouth, and the bright light forcing its way into my squinting eyes.
But what I remember most was how exhausted I felt. Through an unfortunate sequence of events, my squad had been short-staffed. This meant we had fewer men to do the same job as other squads. Three months of long posts punctuated by short naps had worn me down.
But, tired or not — here we were. Another hot, dusty day in Afghanistan.
We were in what we called, “The Taliban Highway”. A stretch of land between my company’s area of operation and our sister company’s area of operation. A stretch of land that was furthest away from any other Marines.
As a squad leader, my main responsibility was to keep my men moving. It is a fairly simple equation. If we are not maneuvering around the enemy, they are maneuvering around us.
On this occasion, I had moved my men to an exposed intersection so we could see the enemy better. The problem was — they could see us better too.
It was a perfectly executed ambush and I played right into their hands. To make matters worse, I was immediately tunnel-visioned. Instead of maneuvering my men, I became so completely absorbed with shooting the enemy that I didn’t move my men fast enough.
Once the shooting had ceased, I immediately started counting my men.
I was one short.
Throughout the days that followed, I still felt very little. I certainly didn’t feel like talking about it. I don’t know that I knew how to talk about it even if I wanted to.
A few of the guys in my platoon would do a cursory check-in.
Safe response. There really was no other way for a 22-year-old full of bravado whose main concern in life was not appearing weak to answer.
And I did feel fine. Better than fine, I felt normal. A far as I was concerned, I just wanted to keep fighting.
As the weeks passed after the deployment. I continued to feel fine and think I was fine.
Outwardly, things continued as they had before that day. We went back out on patrol the next day and the day after that and the day after that. We got into firefight after firefight.
Inwardly though, things had stopped. I didn’t know what exactly, I just knew I felt empty. But still, I refused to entertain the idea I was anything but the stoic Marine I believed myself to be.
My body, however, would betray me. Once I was back stateside, I would spontaneously burst into tears at the most inopportune times regardless of what mood I was actually in and for apparently no reason.
Once, we were out at a bar with my best friends— drinking and shooting the shit. Our standard routine. I was chatting up this gorgeous girl when I spontaneously burst into tears. Not in the sexy, vulnerable, single-tear-rolling-down-the-corner-of-your-eye way but the big racking sobs and full ugly cry way. Filled with embarrassment, I ran outside to calm myself down while feeling completely confused as to what was going on.
Another time, I was at a crawfish boil with my brother and his friend. I was feeling great, and having a grand old time. Out of nowhere and in the midst of the most mundane conversation, it happened again. Whole-body shaking sobs and full ugly cry mode. The same embarrassment rose up and I ran around desperately trying to find a place to be alone before hiding behind some porta-potties. Not my finest moment.
It appears that just because I didn’t allow myself the luxury of emotions, it didn’t mean that the energy was just going to go away. The pressure would build and it would get released with or without my permission.
In the first few months after the incident, the spontaneous crying would happen every few days. By the time I turned 26 (four years later), I had gotten it down to about once a month and by the time I was 28, it lessened further to every three months or so.
Each episode reinforced the same internal message. People will not understand and I don’t need people. Just breathe, go somewhere private, and you can return back to normal afterward.
Every time I burst into tears, I would see the confusion on the faces of the people around me — my fellow Marines, my brother, my friends. They were concerned, but it was clear that they didn’t how to help. I didn’t even know how to help myself, much less what anyone else could do to help me. Like many men raised with false illusions of masculinity, I was also definitely not willing to see a therapist.
So, I concluded that this was something I would have to deal with myself.
I told myself I had to be emotionally self-sufficient. The only way I could think of doing that was by isolating myself. That’s cool, I knew how to do that.
This thought felt like it was protecting me. It made me feel more resilient, more in control. It was the only thing holding me together and keeping me away from the prescription pills.
I’m fine. I repeated to myself for the millionth time.
After I left the Marines, I went on with life. I traveled all over South America, dabbled in urban farming, discovered rock climbing, and eventually enrolled in nursing school.
In nursing school, my extraversion re-emerged and I was a little social butterfly. I talked to everyone and made friends easily. I dated girls and felt pretty normal.
I had talked it out with the Marines who were there that day and I knew that there was no way I could be sure that any other decision could have resulted in a different outcome or no one dying. We were, after all, at war. After nine years, I had finally rationalized the incident.
I was fine. Or at least, it sure felt like it.
Allow me to define my version of fine.
I always wanted to feel as though I didn’t need anyone outside of myself.
We can hang out, rock climb, drink beers, and have sex but I don’t need you. I’m just fine by myself.
The irony was that I simultaneously craved real, deep connection but was also resistant to it at the same time. I would spend hours trying to get women to engage with me, but whenever any level of real intimacy developed, I would push it away.
Don’t get my wrong, as a hot-blooded man, I was definitely capable of infatuation. I could fall head-over-heels with someone. I could lust for them and I could obsess about them, but deep down — I would never allow myself to need them.
I had convinced myself that people and feelings would only hold me back in life. Besides, I was going back to war anyway. So, what was the point in making real connections?
I drew a lot of comfort from constantly returning back to these familiar ways of thinking. It was like having an old blanket from childhood. It was smelly and worn thin, but at least it was familiar.
Then my mother passed away. That familiar numbness came back. I didn’t feel sad. Or angry. Or anything really — except a fog. A heavy fog that obscured my feelings even more and officially switched my heart off.
At the time, I was seeing a girl. We had a connection. But after my mother passed away, I couldn’t bring myself to try. I retreated even more into my own world — my ambitions, my thought patterns, and my unrelenting desire to go back to war.
Since the incident, I was always chasing chaos. All future options that excited me involved returning to some kind of chaos — being a nurse in a war-torn country, returning to Afghanistan as a contractor, volunteering to go to New York to help fight COVID-19.
I was willing to give up relationships, stability, and opportunities to chase chaos. I eventually understood my desire to go back to war — it was the only thing that could make me feel anything.
I needed this fog of numbness to lift. I wanted to grieve, to feel sadness, to feel anything. Sometimes, I would poke my own chest, to see if I could coax some feeling out of it. Nothing.
I tried different ways of trying to tap into my feelings — booze, drugs, sex, introspection, journaling, talking it out but nothing worked to unlock it. I just couldn’t access my feelings.
Then I met her. A chance encounter at a climbing gym.
A tiny force of nature full of questions. She would ask question after question — never with judgment but there was always more. Her insatiable curiosity fed my own emotional curiosity.
Even if I didn’t know how to describe how or what I was feeling, her questions would guide me there — peeling layer after layer off like I was one giant onion. My mental models, my thought processes, my motivations, and eventually even my feelings.
“Why do you think….,” she would start. Seven hours later, I would hear words coming out of my mouth that I hadn’t realized were shaping my mental models until then.
“Is there more?”
She would ask this question in a variety of ways but it would always inevitably lead to another seven hours of talking and exploring.
I enjoyed the conversations but I still couldn’t connect emotionally.
But she had a way of touching me — gently, with soft caresses. A touch that didn’t ask for anything and conveyed no expectations. It required no response from me and for the first time in a long time, I could just receive it. My body would calm down, and then I felt something stir inside me. Not feelings, but a shift, an awakening.
We kept talking, and she kept exploring my body sensually.
It felt like I had spent a lifetime storing my emotions inside my body. As she caressed, kneaded (something she liked to call “mushing”), and rubbed my body, I was finally able to feel again. No amount of talking could have replaced this.
I had pushed all emotion out of my mind and heart, but my body had been keeping score. All the years of stuffing my feelings down had numbed my body and by allowing my body to be nurtured, aroused, and kneaded — I was finally able to unlock both my body and my feelings.
We went on a trip to remote Wyoming. Long days were spent hiking and climbing which amplified my connection with Mother Nature. The trip was the combination of deep conversations, sensual touching, playfulness, and long days in nature that all contributed to my ability to feel again.
She asked me one day,
“How do you think you finally allowed yourself to connect again?”
After much introspection, I knew the answer.
The key was to simply not push away — to not react to my old, deeply ingrained thought patterns. Even though the thought patterns and desire to withdraw were still there, I had to actively choose to stay open and not push away.
I slowly allowed myself to think,
“I’m not fine and I can’t do this by myself.”
I finally allowed my ego to dissolve enough to accept that I’m not weak for wanting, or even needing other people.
On the last day of our trip, I finally allowed the full physical and emotional release I had sought. The floodgates were open and the full spectrum of emotions — anger, pain, confusion, loneliness, joy, hope, excitement— poured out of me. I wasn’t sure what was going on but I finally felt alive again.
The most powerful lesson
It took me 22 years to know the question and another 10 years to answer it. But the lesson is clear.
What is the most powerful lesson about connection?
It is that I need it.
I need real connection — not activity partners, or drinking buddies, or cool companions, or sexual partners.
I need people who will not accept my “I’m fine” answer when they suspect that I’m not. I need people who will not push me away when I push away. I need people who will accept all of me — even the confused, angry, and distant parts. I need people who could help me grow into my full potential as a human being.
More importantly, I need people who could help me experience all of life and feel the full spectrum of bliss and sorrow. I had blunted out the lows, but that had taken out all the highs too.
Disconnection is a false friend. I thought not needing other people would protect me but it was slowly killing me inside.
And yes, it is okay to need people.
I could not have seen the flaws in my thought patterns that I desperately needed in order to grow without other people.
I could not have awakened the emotions inside my body without other people.
I could not have found the emotional safety to confront my demons without other people.
This isn’t a love story. This is a story about disconnecting from the world and finding a path back to connection.
It took ten years to remember but I will never forget again — connection is what makes me come alive.
“Don’t ask what the world needs. Ask what makes you come alive, and go do it. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.”
― Howard Thurman