by John Ellis
As 2002 began, I found myself living in Atlanta, GA. Over the previous three years, I had made some minor alterations to my grand plans. Having fallen in love with performing on stage, my goal was no longer to become a movie star. I was now focused on a career as a theatre actor. And from my perspective, I was on the cusp of achieving all my goals. My life was going great.
My Christian upbringing was a distant memory that rarely troubled me. At parties and rehearsals, I would often mention that my dad was a fundamentalist Baptist minister to the great delight of those around me. I would regale them with tales from my time as a student at a Christian school and BJU, and they would chortle at my mocking depictions of people from my past.
As an avowed atheist and Marxist, faith was an object of scorn. The few professing Christians that wandered in and out of my social and theatre circles quickly learned to keep their faith to themselves when around me. Armed with a fundamentalist education, I knew the Bible inside and out and loved to needle professing Christians with the book’s contradictions and gross moral lapses. I may not have been a fundamentalist Christian, but that didn’t dampen my enthusiasm for proselytizing. Instead of preaching repentance and faith, I preached hedonism and skepticism.
By 2002, the depravity that had been new and seemed so scary yet fascinating to me in 1998 had become a normal part of my life. I was no longer the timid Christian school kid afraid of being found out as a fraud. Depravity fit like a glove, and I wore it comfortably.
I was also active in liberal organizations like PETA, Amnesty International, and Adbusters. I had managed to scrub fundamentalism from my life and reinvent myself as the exact opposite of what my parents had hoped and prayed for me when I was born in 1975. Whenever I was with my parents, which was infrequent by my design, I found the immense pain in my mom’s eyes amusing and prided myself on having escaped the silly mythology that controlled her life.
Now, as a parent who prays daily for his children, I can’t imagine the agony that my mom took to bed with her every night. But in 2002, I didn’t care; I loved my life. I had freed myself from God.
The new year opened with me being cast in the role of Tom in The Glass Menagerie, one of my dream roles. Over 200 actors auditioned for it, and, honestly, I was surprised when I got the call offering me the part.
On top of being one of my dream roles, the gig also paid me more than I had ever made up to that point working in theatre.
Interestingly, Bob Jones University played an unwitting role in me landing the part.
Before submitting my resume, I considered scrubbing BJU off it. At the time, the university was still suffering the repercussions from the controversy over their interracial dating ban that they dropped in 2000. During his presidential campaign about two years earlier, George W. Bush had visited the school, setting off a media firestorm. By early 2002, the fury had died down some, but I still wondered if having BJU on my resume would hurt me. Not really having anything else education wise to replace it with, BJU remained. A week after submitting my headshot and resume, I received an invite to the audition.
One day during a rehearsal, I asked the director, a gay man based out of New York City, why he had invited me to the closed audition. To my surprise, he said that it was because I had gone to BJU. Taken aback, I asked him what he meant.
“I had never met anyone from BJU,” he replied, “and was curious.”
The play’s run went great. I received rave reviews for my depiction of Tom, had moved in with the actress playing Laura, and was finally making enough money as an actor to no longer need a side job. What’s more, I had already signed the contract for my next acting gig. As far as I was concerned, all my angst, doubts, and insecurities were safely in my past. I was finally myself, living by my rules, accomplishing my dreams and goals on my terms.
In my mind, the God of my parents was finally dead.
A common theme throughout many of the great tragedies of ancient literature is the destructiveness of hubris. As a lover of literature, I knew that but failed to see the foreshadowing in my own life. As someone who was immersed in play analysis, I tended to view life through the lens of a three-act structure. What’s more, as someone who also tended to view life in overly dramatic terms, I should’ve been assuming that I was only in the beginning of my Act 2; that my hubris would soon be clashing with the primary conflict of my life’s story.
But, as the great tragedies of literature teach, hubris blinds. What’s more, as the Bible reveals, the heart is deceitful and sin blinds.
I entered the summer of 2002 with a level of arrogance unmatched in my life’s story, before or after. Thankfully, by the end of that year, God, in His mercy, had begun to break me.
By the time rehearsals for A Midsummer Night’s Dream had started, I needed a new place to live. My “relationship” with my previous cast mate had run its course. That was fine with me; new show, new actresses.
My new director helped me procure a room in a house owned by a Delta pilot. The house was large, and each room was rented out to a different individual. When he was in town, the owner occupied the master suite.
I know that as an actor I kept weird hours, but during my three months living there, outside of my landlord, I never saw any of my roommates; I heard them, but never saw a single one of them. To this day, that fact remains a mystery to me. And a mystery that ended up playing a role during that summer in an unexpected manner.
After rehearsals began, like most shows, the cast was overall friendly with each other but did break off into groups that hung out together. As the summer began, I became friends with the actor playing Bottom. He was a good actor, had a better resume than mine, and was fun to hang out with. Most of his time away from the theatre was spent either sleeping or partying. I joined him in the partying.
He and his roommates loved dropping X (ecstasy, or MDMA – the pure, powdered form is called “molly” and, from what I understand, is now more popular than the pill form simply called “X”). Having never dropped X before, I was eager to try it. My first time did not disappoint.
At the risk of glamorizing an incredibly dangerous drug, I loved ecstasy. In fact, I loved it so much that I began wanting to drop X as often as I could.
As the weeks wore on, I was enjoying teaching acting classes during the day, rehearsals in the evening, and partying at night. However, as I began to pay closer attention to my new friend and his roommates, I did begin to become a little concerned.
Not to be mean, but it was fairly obvious that the amount of drugs they had ingested, specifically X, had taken a toll on their cognitive abilities. No worries, I thought, this was merely going to be my summer amusement. Once the show closed, like the way it worked with most friendships among cast members, me and my new friend would stop hanging out and I would cease to do X on a regular basis. However, my timeline for backing away from X was sped up after attending a party.
An acquaintance had informed us about a pajama/piercing party. The “pajama” part meant that we had to attend in our pajamas, or we’d be forced to strip down to our underwear to gain entrance. The “piercing” part meant that one of the party-goers would be licensed piercer and you could get whatever body part pierced that you wanted. At least, I’m assuming the “licensed” part. It’s a pretty safe accusation to make that those who throw piercing parties do not apply for any permits and are not overly concerned with OSHA regulations.
Predictably, concerns about safety were not on our radar, and so my friend and I showed up at a party where we knew maybe one person.
The party was chaotic, and I loved it. However, I only remember a part of that night. Since neither of us were on the rehearsal schedule the next day, we were free to knock ourselves out. And I managed to do just that, literally.
At one point, everything became very surreal (more so than usual when I was high) and distant, like I wasn’t really there. The last thing I remember is lying on the couch, staring at people getting body parts pierced, not sure if any of it was really happening, and feeling like I would never be able to move again. The next day, I woke up, propped up in the corner with no idea of where I was and with a splitting headache.
Based on a conversation I had later with my friend, the best I can tell is that on top of the other drugs I had done, I had also snorted Special K – ketamine, which is an anesthetic. I don’t remember doing that.
Thankfully, my devotion to my theatre career made me realize that I had to stop. Partying was great, I believed, but it did take a backseat to my career. I knew that I was in danger of my partying becoming an impediment to my career goals. So, I stopped hanging out with my new friend. He didn’t seem to care.
Except, the problem was that by that time, the rest of the professional cast had already paired up. I didn’t have anyone to hang out with on a consistent basis among my peers in the cast. At least, anyone that I wanted to hang out with. One of the actresses was a Mormon, whom I now count as a friend, and she would’ve been gracious enough to allow me to hang out with her and her family. But hanging out with Mormons sounded too much like hanging out with Christian fundamentalists. Instead, I looked to the interns for companionship.
Professional actors were cast in the main roles while the smaller roles and much of the backstage work went to interns. There wasn’t a lot of social interaction between the professional cast and the interns. As I mentioned above, my pool for social interaction was greatly diminished by that point. “Thankfully,” one of the interns and I had spent rehearsals up to that point flirting with each other.
She had recently moved to Atlanta from California and didn’t have very many friends in the area. Since she wasn’t yet a fan of alcohol or drugs, when we began hanging out my partying ways that summer came to an almost screeching halt.
I don’t know if I’ve ever met anyone as desperately lonely as she was. She was also in an incredible amount of pain, having moved to Atlanta to escape her abuser. Shamefully, I’m afraid that she escaped one abuser only to find another kind of abuser. Of course, I didn’t see it that way at the time.
When we first started hanging out, she had just started attending a large, non-denominational evangelical church. Most likely, it was because she was lonely. The first time we hung out together after rehearsals, she excitedly told me about the new friends she was making in the young singles Sunday school class she had started attending. I scoffed.
She had only a vaguely religious background and was utterly unprepared to handle my onslaught on her burgeoning religious beliefs. As she would excitedly tell me what her new friends were teaching her, I would explain to her how it was all rubbish and basically fairy tales made up by ancient illiterates who had little to no understanding of how the universe works. I took great delight in showing her contradictions in the Bible and pointing out the ways in which a Biblical worldview had no place in a tolerant society.
It didn’t take long for her to stop going to church. By the time we parted ways two years later, I had converted her to atheism.
Our time together began in earnest after we connected over our loneliness at a cast party hosted by the show’s assistant director. A loneliness that I was surprised to find that I possessed.
From my perspective, it was shaping up to be a great summer after having had a great winter and spring. Part of what made it great was the financial freedom that my theatre teaching gigs afforded me. I found myself with more free time during the day than what I was accustomed. To help pass the time, I began sitting in the library, hours on end, reading.
Prior to that summer, The Metamorphosis was the only work by Kafka that I had read. That summer, I devoured The Castle but it was The Trial that really resonated with me.
There was something about the sense of disconnectedness, unspecified feeling of guilt, and increasing alienation suffered by Josef K., the novel’s protagonist, that felt familiar. I was so captivated by the book that I read it again upon finishing it the first time.
I didn’t understand Kafka’s unfinished book (I probably still don’t), but, at the same time, The Trial made sense to me. Even though I couldn’t explain it, I felt like in many ways I was K.
About that same time, for some reason (well, “for some reason” assuming my 2002 perspective), I started to become obsessed with dying. As in, I became terrified of dying.
Whenever I would drive by the Atlanta Airport, my eyes would scan the skies, I would think that statistically speaking a plane was due to crash and I would then convince myself that there was a high probability that my car would be under whichever plane fell out of the sky. Considering that I was more concerned about what was going on in the skies above me then what was happening on I85 around me, it’s only God’s grace that I didn’t die in a car crash.
It was also at that time that I first began contemplating the nothingness that awaited me after my death. Previously, I had never given much thought to the absence of afterlife that was a part of my atheism. Upon thinking about it, I was troubled. The thought of ceasing to exist, especially if I ceased to exist at the ripe old age of almost 27 was depressing. But, the non-existence of an afterlife was an atheistic dogma that I held dear. Death and its subsequent non-existence may be horrible, I thought, but that’s the way of an impersonal universe. Better to live and die enlightened than to live and die trapped by a silly superstition.
The seeming emptiness of the house in which I lived had also begun to weirdly play on me leading up to that cast party. Whenever I was at the house and awake, usually late at night or during the mid-morning, there was evidence of people living there but never any sight of other humans. I began to feel as if I was in a community that I was not allowed to see.
By myself, before drifting off to sleep in the eerily quiet house, I began to think nostalgically about friends from my youth. Frequently high, I would have conversations with people from my past. Often those conversations turned into me defending my current lifestyle and beliefs against the imagined questions of those who had once poured a lot of time, energy, and concern into my life. Eventually, I would fall asleep, slightly troubled by my curious need to defend myself during imagined conversations. However, in the morning, with the sun streaming through the windows, I would give no thought to my previous night’s growing questions and feelings.
Almost everyone involved with the production was at the cast party hosted by the assistant director, Melissa. It was a stereotypical cast party. In other words, fairly bland. Plenty of alcohol, of course. Plenty of food. And plenty of surface level engagement as half of the people there schemed about how to politely make their exit so that they could make it to a better party that wasn’t bogged down by the presence of minors. Most of the other half was scheming about how to politely exit because they weren’t really into parties. In other words, it was a polite yet boring party.
By around 10:00 or so, everyone had left except myself, Melissa, of course, because we were at her house, and Christine, the intern.
As we talked, sharing stories about our pasts, learning about each other, I quickly became aware of how lonely Christine was, and how much baggage she was carrying from her past. Quickly doing the “relationship math” in my head, I concluded that the quickest way to getting her into bed was to steer into the points of contact I had with her because of my disconnectedness from my past.
I shared how my current life caused a relational separation between me and my family. “Oh,” I insisted, “my family loves me, but they don’t understand me, and I really can’t talk to them about anything.”
The conversation became mutually reinforced tales of woe about how everyone from our past, family and friends, had no part in our current lives. As we talked, a strange thing happened; I began to realize how incredibly lonely I was. Realizing that I didn’t have a single person who really knew me to which I could confide my hopes, dreams, and fears, someone to intimately share my life with, and not just my actions, I began to despair.
I fought it, but for the first time in years, memories of past teachers, preachers, and other authority figures who had genuinely cared about me flooded into my mind. It dawned on me that, in many ways, even though I was surrounded by friends, I didn’t have a single person in my life who cared about me as much as my old BJU dorm supervisor, for example. I also began to become aware that I was building nothing in my life that mattered apart from me. For the first time, maybe ever and at least in a long time, the nothingness of my life began to reveal itself. Sitting on the couch, in the middle of trying to seduce a female, I began sobbing.
Looking back on it, the moment makes sense. For years, I had alienated myself from real relationships as I pursued my completely self-centered goals. That moment was merely the release (the beginning of the release) of my need for transcendence, both in relationships and a purpose for life. During the moment, though, I was mortified at myself and my inability to control my emotions. And I didn’t understand what was happening.
Still in the committed thralls of building my own Tower of Babel, I later turned that moment into my advantage. That night, as I cried, Christine cried, too. The next morning, as I readied myself to drive her to her apartment, I realized that my “embarrassing” emotional breakdown had inadvertently worked in my favor. She had connected with me on an emotional level that I hadn’t known that I had wanted until that night.
To be fair (a little) to myself, at that point, I had started to weary of one-night stands and wanted a real relationship. I did like Christine and eventually actually cared for her, although never more than I cared for myself. She became the first real relationship that I’d had in years. Sadly, among other obvious sin issues, it was a relationship so weighed down by baggage that it quickly became toxic. Among other ways, that toxicity, as I’ve already confessed, manifest itself in my burning desire to destroy any religious impulses she expressed.
However, the Band-Aid covering my loneliness and angst had been ripped off. Over the next two years, my pain festered and grew. At the time, even whenever Christine and I were together, a gnawing sense of incompleteness and alienation from, well, something, began to increasingly gnaw at me. Whenever I was by myself, I began to experience what would eventually become the norm – alone at night, my loneliness gradually became suffocating. By the time I finally bowed the knee in repentance before God through faith in Jesus, nights alone were physically painful. That extreme was still in my future, though. Regardless of how bad it was going to get, during that summer my “great life” began to feel less great.
Adding to my confusion, before that summer ended the first shot across the bow of my atheism was fired – the first shot, from a human perspective.
One late night, while alone in my room, a radio suddenly began blaring down the hall. Curious, I got up and opened the door to my room. As soon as the door opened, the music stopped. I found that odd but assumed that an unseen roommate had turned his radio on and off. I closed the door, but as soon as I did, the music began blaring again. As you can probably guess, upon quickly opening the door again, the music stopped.
Puzzled, I closed the door and sat back down on my bed as the music began playing again. Determined to get to the bottom of the mystery, I barged out of my room and into the dark hallway. No lights and no sound greeted me.
Curiously and somewhat cautiously making my way down the darkened hallway, I began flipping on light switches. The direction that the music had come from was a communal area that was always empty. That night was no different. I inspected the stereo system the landlord had provided, switched it on, and was greeted by the same music. Unable to find some sort of an alarm system on the stereo that could provide some explanation for what had happened, my mind considered the options.
My rational, materialistic mind immediately assumed that a roommate had been in the room but had left. On one hand, that seemed to be the most plausible explanation. On the other hand, it still didn’t make complete sense. I mean, each time I had swung my door open, the house was pitch black with no sound. But at the end of that road lay mythical nonsense, I believed, so I made my way down the stairs and inspected the first floor. Nothing.
The next day, I laughed about it during a break from teaching fourth graders improvisation. My co-teacher, an actress in the show with me, was horrified. “That sounds like an evil spirit trying to unbalance your energy,” she gravely warned.
After brushing off my explanation about how there’s no such thing as evil spirits and/or ghosts, she offered to make me a special dreamcatcher that if I hung on my doorknob would protect me from evil spirits. I told her thanks, but no thanks, regretting having told her about it.
My regret proved prescience, because she never let me forget about it the rest of the summer as she continuously begged me to accept her dreamcatcher. The thing that was the most annoying about the whole deal was that from time to time, I found myself wondering if there was more to it than science or logic could explain. I didn’t allow myself to entertain such “nonsensical” thoughts for long, though. I was an atheist, after all.
If I may be allowed to editorialize for a moment – I do not believe in ghosts. However, I do believe in Satan and other fallen angels. I am no longer a materialist and, so, I believe in the immaterial world. That being said, you will be hard pressed to get me to voice a belief about what happened that night. Frankly, on a personal level, I don’t really care what happened; I’m just glad that it happened. I relate the anecdote because whatever was going on, it played a small part, at least, in beginning to shoehorn the immaterial world into my purely materialistic worldview. Over the subsequent years, prior to my salvation, while I laughed it off, a tiny part of me was still troubled by what happened that night. If it was one of my unseen roommates playing with the radio for some odd reason, I praise God for that. If it was something else, I praise God for that, too. I’ll leave it to the readers to form your own beliefs about what actually happened that night. I’ll say this, though, that wasn’t the last time over the next two years that something weird and unexplainable happened to me.
As the summer of 2002 closed, and as my loneliness grew, I found myself navel-gazing more and more about who I was and what I was doing. I also began to increasingly view moments from my “fundamentalist” past through a lens of wistful nostalgia. Being in a committed relationship with someone who was constantly searching for answers and constantly attempting to figure out her place in the world affected me. As destructive and sinful as our relationship was, Christine confronted me with worldview level questions that I mistakenly believed that I had already settled. Likewise, my newly found fear of death worked on the edges of my worldview. Entering the final months of 2002, my life was not nearly as tranquil as the when the year had begun.
I also made a serious career misstep as A Midsummer Night’s Dream closed. I had been offered two acting gigs – one in Atlanta, the other back in Greenville, SC.
I can’t say for sure that my growing existential crisis played a part in returning to Greenville, SC, the home of BJU, but I also can’t say for sure that it didn’t. All I know is that for some dumb reason, I chose to take a gig for less money, in a much smaller market, in order to play the Big Bad Wolf in a touring company’s productions of a Little Red Riding Hood and The Three Little Pigs.
At the time, I told myself that I was doing the director, whom I considered a friend, a favor. “Besides,” I believed, “Atlanta will be waiting for me after my contract’s up.”
Except, I didn’t factor in the industry’s incredibly short memory. By the time I was ready to return to Atlanta (and able – more on that in a bit), I couldn’t get directors in Atlanta to return my phone calls. Having found other actors able to play the roles I was right for, they had moved on.
The tour quickly became tiring and artistically unsatisfying. Wearing a wolf costume while doing the Macarena on stage to rooms full of shrieking kids was a far cry from playing Tom in The Glass Menagerie. To make matters worse, the money was less than I had originally been offered. When the theatre’s financial manager sat me down and told me that the profit sharing part of my first contract would be illegal since the theatre was a not-for-profit organization, I felt like I didn’t have any other options but to allow him to tear up the initial contract and then resign the new contract. That change resulted in my making around two thousand dollars less than I had planned over the life of the four-month contract.
That may not sound like much money to most people with real jobs, but it’s a substantial amount of money when you’re a theatre actor. Because of that, I had to once again work a side job. I found a job bartending at a brew pub that was willing to work around my weekly touring schedule. That still wasn’t enough, so I also delivered pizzas during the days I wasn’t on the road. Those four months were some of the most grueling, work wise, of my life. Granted, different lifestyle choices would’ve allowed me to live on less money, but I wasn’t about to change my lifestyle.
One of the expensive choices I made was taking the time and money to drive to Milledgeville, GA at least once a week to pick up Christine who was back at college, and then bring her back to my unfurnished apartment in Greenville. Often, I would finish a gig, drive the two and a half hours to pick her up, drive the two and half hours back, get a couple of hours of sleep, wake up and go deliver pizzas while she slept, and then take her to my bartending job that night. After my shift ended, usually around midnight or 1 am, I would drive her back to her dorm, spend the remainder of the night in her dorm room, and then wake up early in order to make it to my gig or pizza delivery job on time, depending on the day.
If you thought it was exhausting reading those run-on sentences, imagine living those run-on sentences. The oft repeated enterprise was a lot of gas and meals on the road that I couldn’t afford, not to mention the lack of sleep.
By November, I was exhausted and sick of all three of my jobs. To make matters worse, Christine and I had begun arguing over our future together. She had begun talking about marriage and kids; I had turned my sights to the theatre market in Chicago (and eventually NYC) and couldn’t really see myself bogged down with a family. Not having the energy, time, or resources to find another companion, I did my best to placate her without over committing myself.
One night, about a week before Thanksgiving, making the return trip to Greenville after having picked her up, I wrecked my car.
I’m still not sure what happened, there’s a good possibility that being exhausted and high didn’t help, but I believed that a deer was standing in the middle of the road. I slammed on my brakes, hit a patch of ice, and skidded off the road and into a pretty deep and wide ditch.
The front of my Grand Am was firmly stuck in the ditch with the back tires off the ground. With my door was wedged shut, I crawled out of Christine’s door behind her. Terrified and angry, she screamed at me. I tried to explain to her that I had been trying to avoid hitting a deer at sixty miles an hour. Peppering her speech with an overused obscenity, she screamed back, “What deer!? There was no deer!”
As she chewed me out for almost killing her, I began to doubt whether there was a deer or not. I also realized that there was no ice on the road.
I quietly took her profanity-laced insults, because I had a more immediate problem than my car. Assuming I would end up in jail if a cop showed up on the scene while I was still high, I had enough presence of mind to implore her not to call 911 just yet. However, a few minutes later, a cop car pulled up anyway.
As the officer walked towards us, I rehearsed in my mind what I would say and reminded myself to be cool. He asked if we were all right. I told him that we were and then explained that I had swerved to miss a deer and lost control of the car.
He told us that he was with the county and that since my car was inside of the Athens city limits we’d have to wait until a city cop arrived. Although cold and miserable, I was relieved.
By the time the tow-truck wrenched my car out of the ditch, the sun was beginning to come up. I called in sick to work from the lobby of the garage as the mechanic worked on the front end of my car. By the end of the day, I was out money that I did not have to spend, and my car was still far from whole. It was in good enough shape to drive home, though.
By the beginning of December, my bank account had been drained, my credit cards maxed out, and my car finally fixed. My rent was also due. I decided not to wait around for the eviction notice but didn’t really have anywhere to go. I had no real friends, and I obviously couldn’t move into my girlfriend’s dorm room, although we did discuss the possibility.
Since at the time both of my sisters lived in Greenville with their families, my parents came to town that Christmas. The day after bitterly explaining about my bad luck and how my insurance company refused to help with the car repairs, my parents handed me a check for two-hundred dollars, money that I knew that they couldn’t afford to give me, and my mom quietly suggested that I move back home.
“Until you get back on your feet,” she said.
Staring at the check and fighting back tears at their generosity, I agreed.
The next week, with all my earthly belongings stuffed inside my car, I stopped in Milledgeville on my way to Pensacola just long enough to blow that $200 partying with Christine.
Almost five years after I had left, for good, I thought, I found myself back home.
Unlike 2002, the new year opened with my life headed in the wrong direction. I was broke, lonely, had no source of income, my theatre career was on-hold, and I was living with my parents.
As I unloaded my car, I thought to myself, “At least it can’t get any worse.”
Boy, was I wrong.