My journey to the edge of sanity and back


By Mark W. Schaefer

I realized this is the tenth anniversary of my descent to the edge of sanity.

This is a difficult post to write because I normally don’t dwell on such dark things. But the echo from the cataclysmic Big Bang of my life still provides the background noise in my cosmos. It is part of who I am and part of who I will always be.

When we work with people, we only see a small sliver of who they really are — perhaps decades of experiences that have brought them to that point. On the web, where we may only admire online friends from a photo and a few posts, that sliver is infinitesimal. We don’t really know people at all.

Maybe you only know me from some list I am on, or perhaps you’ve read a book or attended a class. Today, let’s peel it back.

My life’s Big Bang

The Big Bang started with a Mercedes-Benz.

I was happily working in my yard, cleaning up from a neighborhood party my wife and I hosted, when a stranger in a black Mercedes drove up, rolled down the window, and handed me a slip of paper with a phone number scribbled on it. The mysterious driver insisted that it was urgent that I call this number. In fact, it would change my life.

So I called the number.

On the other end of the phone was a kind woman who carefully described to me how her husband was having an affair with my wife. She had hired a private investigator who now had a video of them together.

For the next two days I trembled, alone, in a hotel room. And then I went to see the video … which had the unexpected impact of calming me down. At least I knew the truth of the situation.

Lots of people have affairs and lots of couples get divorced without going insane but I wasn’t one of those people. It was complicated.

This event happened after I had supported my wife through her problems with addictions for years. She had been in and out of re-hab, totaled a car (and almost killed herself), tried to commit suicide, disappeared on drinking binges, and routinely drove around drunk. Living with her was literally a matter of life and death every day, for years. My life was a war zone. I loved her for better or for worse, and mostly it was worse.

She was also the mother of my two step children who I loved as my own, raised as my own. They called me Daddy. And then after she ran away with this guy, they were gone. I never saw them again. Stepfathers have no rights.

A few months before The Big Bang, I had an accident and was temporarily paralyzed with a spinal cord injury. The neurosurgeon wondered how I could walk, but I did. After surgery I had to nurse myself back to health because my wife was too drunk to help me. I had side effects from the injury for years.

During this period I also lost three of my best friends, two to disease, one to a self-inflicted gunshot wound. I was also in a terrible, stressful situation at work, toiling for an unethical bully.

My finances were a mess. In the divorce, I had to give this woman half of everything I owned, everything I had saved for decades.

The divorce wasn’t easy. In her drunken haze, my wife begged and pleaded for reconciliation but kept going back to the other guy, a goofy-looking slug who was a serial womanizer, a liar, and a business cheat. He had been married three times before and was in the middle of one affair when he started preying on my wife. A class act.

None of it made sense until I learned some of my wife’s family secrets. It made me realize my wife had been on a nearly continuous path of self-destruction since she was a teenager. But I knew none of this going into the marriage.

All of this came crashing down. Everything was gone, it seemed. My wife, my family, my friends, my house, my money, my job security, my health, my children. I even had to give up my dog in the divorce. I had lost all that was seemingly meaningful in a matter of months.

And I snapped. Just for a few days, but I snapped. I don’t even remember much of this period. I kept a journal which I recently re-discovered and so much of the pain of this time I had completely forgotten or repressed, until now.

What does it mean?

I’m a private person so rarely shovel out a lot of this personal stuff. I prefer to go on, move ahead, focus on the future. But I’ve learned the hard way that you never really get over trauma like this. Time doesn’t heal, it numbs.

I know this sounds so stupid now, but when all this was going on, I did not get the help I needed to recover. But after all this time, I could not ignore the toxins still rumbling through my head, and I started to talk to a professional. I am, in his words, “monstrously traumatized.”

I hate being put on a pedestal. Today I wanted to prove to you that I’m screwed up like just about everybody else.

I have this cool little thing on my site where people can sign up for an hour of my time. I get a chance to help a lot of fascinating people from all over the world and it is always a fun challenge. Recently a person called me and said she had to get up her courage to talk to me. Why? “Because you’re a rockstar.”

As you can see, I’m really not.

I am just a person. My talent is being a strong strategic thinker and writing about it, or talking about business from a stage.

You have talents too. You are amazing. We are all equal in our human condition. We all succeed, we all fall, we all suffer.

A place of peace

When I was going through this dark period, my cousin gave me a great piece of advice: “There is a certain amount of liberty that comes from being totally fucked.”

And it was true.

In the world of physics, The Big Bang was the event where all light and life sprung forth from a single point of darkness. And so it did. The cataclysm made me who I am today. The explosion altered the course of my life, like a detour that never ends. But I am stronger and happier than at any other time in my life.

In fact, I can say without reservation that I would not be connected to you through this blog, I would not have written my books, I would not be speaking on your stage, or holding forth at your workshop if had not been for The Big Bang. If it had never occurred, I might have been dragged right down the drain for years with a very sick woman.

I’m re-married to the person I was meant to be with all along. I am doing the work I was born to do. I am settling into a place of peace.

I am incredibly blessed to be in a position where people listen to what I say. I am privileged to have a forum to speak truth and dispense hope.

You know … when you think about it, perhaps this 10-year anniversary, this Big Bang, is something worth celebrating.

Illustration courtesy Flickr CC and Christine Ricks.

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