(This is the second of a four-part article)
Depression and suicide bids
As I said, a poor self-image, a life being destroyed by drugs, a few cases of unrequited love, and I was pretty depressed for much of this time. I was not much fun to be around – just so often bummed out and miserable. And with the Vietnam War on in full swing, and the national draft in action, that just added to my depression and paranoia.
Some of us were devising plans to escape the draft should we get called into the military, so we were making elaborate plans to escape to Canada, or to fake our own deaths. Needless to say, we all hated what we called the military-industrial complex, all wars, all governments, and all militaries. We just wanted to give peace a chance.
And of course psychedelic drugs like LSD did not really help things much. What they did was this: they simply amplified and magnified a million times over whatever state or condition you were already in. So if you were bummed out and on a real downer, you got massive bummers and mega-downers when on these mind-altering drugs.
All my reading and searching and seeking were getting me nowhere. Radical leftist politics were certainly not filling the huge void in my life. The eastern religions and philosophies and related psychic ideas may have sounded good in theory but just did not deal with my reality.
All the man-centred and humanistic philosophies, spiritualities, worldviews and psychotherapies which I had feasted upon were not doing anything to turn my life around or keep it from completely spinning out of control. And I never did find God like Leary said I would if I ate a lot of LSD.
I did find a lot of spiritual realities however. Looking back now I can clearly see that I had plenty of very real encounters with the demonic and the very dark side of the spirit world. Satan and his minions were having a field day with us hippies, and the more drugs we took, the more power and control they had over us.
So it was an extremely black and desperate period in my life. There was no light at the end of the tunnel – only darkness everywhere, and a darkness which was getting even darker. All in all I was one very messed up kid, and suicide became a real option. Thus on several occasions I attempted it – even if they were rather half-hearted attempts. But one such attempt I will never forget.
I was alone as usual, in the downstairs of my parents’ two-story house. They lived upstairs and I had the entire downstairs to myself. Once again crushed with overwhelming despair and depression, I grabbed the kitchen knife, mustering up the courage to end it all.
I was pretty serious this time, and as I was in the very midst of all this insanity, suddenly something happened. There was another person in the room. As clear as day I knew there was someone in the room. And for some reason I knew exactly who it was – it was Jesus.
He was not there very long, and I don’t recall anything being said by him. But he stayed long enough to complete his task. I of course put the knife down and thoughts of suicide fled away. Jesus had once again saved me, as he had undoubtedly done so many times before – whether when I was on a bad acid trip or in some other bad place. He saved my life that night – at least physically speaking. And soon he was to save my life spiritually speaking as well.
So here I was – a totally bummed out, messed up kid, working in a plastics factory. I was depressed, suicidal, a no-hoper, utterly miserable, and a complete prodigal son. Two months out of high school, depressed with no future and no hope, suicidal and quite lost: I was open for the gospel.
The actual date for the beginning of all this was, I believe, August 15, 1971. I was due to go to Milwaukee in a day or two for another rock concert – I believe it was Alvin Lee and Ten Years After plus another group. Earlier in the day I had a friend drive me to Madison to score a few more albums. Drugs and albums were about the only things I spent money on (although I did steal a number of records, and got caught at least once).
I got three albums that day. I can recall at least two of them: The Moody Blues’ Every Good Boy Deserves Favour and an album by Dan Hicks and His Hot Licks. I forget the third, but I never did get to listen to them. When I got back to Sheboygan I was bicycling to a friend’s house with my new albums and a just-scored bag of psilocybin, when I got interrupted.
Cheryl, a hippy girl that I had known well, was with a few others, driving down the street in the opposite direction. I pulled over and had a chat – and that was the beginning of the end for me. It was the rather unexpected and unplanned – on my part – end of my old life. And it was the start of a new life in Christ – albeit a rather circuitous one with many detours and false paths.
She had just got back from a Christian commune in the mountains of New Mexico. She was telling everyone about Jesus and her new life in Christ. She was certainly excited and radiant. She seemed to be a new person, and wanted everyone to discover what she had.
She was more than happy to tell me all about her story and her Jesus. It was all pretty basic and simple stuff really, like how Jesus cares for the birds in the trees, knows the number of hairs on your head, and does not allow a sparrow to fall to the ground without him knowing about it.
All very appealing stuff to a hippy – you know: don’t panic, it’s organic. She spoke about how the birds were really praising God when they were chirping away, and how all our desires and yearnings are satisfied in Jesus. Down-to-earth stuff, but certainly music to my desperate ears and empty soul.
I knew she was right and I had to get on board. I knew I had to go back to New Mexico with her; and I guess I was her only convert at the time. I knew if I went home that night I would get sidetracked and put off, so we both slept over at a friend’s house that night, so I would not be tempted to forget all that I heard.
The next morning we went to another friend’s place, where I tiptoed over the sleeping bodies on the floor, and grabbed my sleeping bag. We were off – hitchhiking the 1350 miles or so to Taos. As we hitched our way through Madison where my brother lived I gave him a quick call on a pay phone saying I was leaving. That was all my family heard from me for some time.
The journey was an adventure in itself, and we easily could never have made it. But we did, and my new life in Christ then started in earnest. And on the way I was reading all I could of a small pocket Gideon’s New Testament and Psalms. It was the first time I had really earnestly and seriously read the Bible.
So there I was, in a rough and tumble dwelling in the country side, a mile or two out of Taos, near to the famous Taos Indian Pueblo. The mountains, the deserts, and the fragrant sagebrush were part of my new home. The property we were I suppose squatting on consisted of a dumpy old building with no running water or electricity – of course.
It was a very rustic and rough commune where a bunch of impressionable and enthusiastic young Americans made the best of a rather harsh environment. But we were mostly all hippies, so we were used to things like this – living on the streets, sleeping under bridges, digging for food in garbage dumps, living off the land, etc.
Eventually we constructed by hand a mud brick adobe dwelling, half underground. Anywhere from 5 to 25 people lived on the ranch at a given time I suppose. Lots of people were coming and going, and we had lots of visitors, or people we brought back after witnessing to them in town or elsewhere. Some stayed on, some were repulsed by what they saw, and many heard at least a type of the gospel message.
But that was the problem unfortunately. This was actually a cult. If you are familiar with the Charles Manson cult, also from around that time, you get a bit of an idea what I had gotten myself in for. We did not kill anyone as they had done, but I suppose we might have, if we were told to do so.
The place was led by a Manson-like cult figure. His name was Ty-a-coomb (that was his “spirit” name. We all got one eventually as well – mine was Keethloo which meant “pretty sounds” – I did play some guitar then). He was one of those very strong charismatic personalities, and he called the shots, and we pretty much unquestionably did what he told us to do.
So here I was: my first real exposure to some sort of Christianity and I landed in a cult! My first day there was interesting to say the least. Three radical things stand out. One, a bad interpretation of Scripture – specifically a passage like 2 Corinthians 5:7 which says “we walk by faith, not by sight” – led to some radical first steps.
This text obviously meant we see by faith and walk in the Spirit, and need not worry about mere physical sight. So my first task was to take a hammer or a rock and smash my glasses to bits. That I promptly did, and I spent the next five months or so stumbling around the mountains of New Mexico, even getting lost once or twice.
You see I have long had terrible eyesight, so this certainly was jumping in the deep end on day one – a real step of faith indeed. But I was ready to do anything in my newfound faith, and so this seemed reasonable to me at the time.
Two, given the hippy/Indian/cult nature of this group, we often got back to nature in more ways than one – including running around with no clothes on, at least on our own land – which got us in trouble with the New Mexico police on more than one occasion, including stints in jail.
Related to this, we reminded folks that Galatians 5:16 tells us that we walk in the Spirit, not in the flesh. That was our explanation when asked why we walked around shoeless in the ice and snow for example. We had homemade looms and we did weaving which we learned from the Indians, so we made belts and related products, and sold them to outsiders to get a bit of cash.
In the winters we would go to fancy ski resorts in the nearby mountains where all these rich skiers and tourists would hang around at. We sold them our weavings, and they were amazed as we walked about barefoot up there in the snow-covered mountains.
And three, I had been a vegetarian for maybe 18 months up to this point: partly for perceived spiritual reasons, partly for perceived health reasons. That could be problematic at times. As any dope-smoker knows, you sure can get the munchies, so we often would seek out some junk foods, such as something like cream-filled chocolate éclairs at a local bakery.
I did not even eat any eggs or egg products – believing that would mean I was taking other life. So it was not just meat I abstained from. Anyway, in our drugged out condition, I would ask my hippy buddies: “are you sure there are no eggs in these?” They assured me there weren’t any, so I enjoyed the éclair – only to learn much later that they were telling me porkies. Oh well, they were pretty tasty at the time, even if they were made with eggs.
But I digress. When I got to Taos they quoted Bible verses such as 1 Timothy 4:3-4 which speaks about all foods are to be eaten with thanksgiving. Sounded OK to me, so I had some chicken that night – the first time in a year and a half any meat entered my mouth. So in that they were actually not cultish.
But they sure were in other ways, including using those same verses in a quite inappropriate manner: to justify using drugs! The line of thought was that drugs are natural, and God in Genesis 1:11-13 spoke about giving mankind all manner of plants and vegetation – so we figured that meant to eat as well as get high on!
Part 3 is here: billmuehlenberg.com/2012/06/27/coming-home-my-testimony-part-3/