Dark thoughts pressed in upon him, crushing promise like the heel of a boot. For the Marine, it felt as if he didn't have a prayer.
"It was very ugly," James (who asked his real name not be used) said as he remembered the depression that had settled over him after his military service. "I battled suicidal thoughts every day. I thought, 'What's the point of life?'"
It was an about-face for the confident 23-year-old who had honorably served four years in the U.S. Marine Corps. Standing tall through three deployments, James had been at-the-ready to protect U.S. embassies, and on the ground with his infantry battalion in Iraq.
"There were combat situations, severe sometimes," said the Tri-Cities, Wash., resident as he reflected on his time in the military, the responsibility he shouldered.
But something shifted on the 2007 spring day he was honorably discharged.
"I had a nice truck and I'd bought a quarter-ounce of marijuana and rolled my joints," James said about the day of his departure at the gate. "I gave the peace sign with my smoke between my fingers when I left the base."
The now "free" man partied, traveled and relished how he was never in the same place for long. He was "living the life" and decided to blow through the funds he had saved.
"I had served for four years, and I was going to party for four months," James said with a look of regret at how he had lived, admitting he was on a high more than he was sober. "I liked to smoke weed, that was my god, that was my idol. You mix that with coming back from the military, not knowing what to do with my life, and I was way out there, not grounded in reality."
Reality hit once James was back in his hometown. Disagreements arose with his dad, including conflict about his values. Raised from a child to attend church every Sunday, the Marine's behavior was incongruent with his roots.
"I thought the church was full of a bunch of stiff-necked religious people," James said, shaking his head at the memory. "I thought I was spiritual. I was following my own path with God, but my belief wasn't grounded in anything."
To get away from the controversy and wanting freedom to live life his own way, he took a short-term job that fall near Grand Junction, Colo. A couple in need of a ranch hand had him traveling east. But on the way, his supply of marijuana ran out.
"I wanted to prove that I didn't need to be high to be happy. But now my mind was clear and this dark cloud began to settle," James said as he remembered how he felt while on the ranch. "I'm awakening to 'What's my future?' My friends are done with college, and now every decision about my life feels monumental. And the shame was overbearing for me, how I'd been acting. The only thing that kept me from suicide was that I couldn't deny the existence of God."
There at the edge of the Rocky Mountains where he saw open skies and the eloquent sunrise day after day, James said he realized he was a shell of his former self. Distraught, he called his dad who told him to come home. In the bleak days that followed, the young man kept to himself, his mind seemingly locked in a state of desolation.
During that time, he occasionally went to church at the invitation of his parents. It was there a petite brunette crossed his path a few times, a young woman who spoke to his heart.
"I always left saying, 'Wow God, I struggle with believing you're real, but there's no way she could have said the things she did if you weren't real,'" James said about their chance meetings and the truth she spoke. "I didn't talk much, but she would hit issues I was going through right on the nose, as if I had shared them with her personally."
Nevertheless, he still felt morose, lost in his gray disquiet. When his brother suggested Costa Rica to surf and stay with relatives, James sold his truck for travel money.
"I spent two weeks living on the beach, surfing with my brother and his friend in paradise, but it didn't do anything for me," James said.
Then temptation slithered onto the beach.
"I met some people from Estonia on the beach, and I smoked weed with them," James said. "And instantly, it was like I appeased a demon — even before the high — when it touched my lips. But then as soon as I came off, the oppression began again."
That's when James knew he couldn't go it alone. He began to spend early mornings at the edge of his relatives' property that bordered a creek and jungle ravine.
"I said, 'OK Lord, I'm more hopeless than ever,'" James said, recalling his moment of epiphany, one that he followed with reading from a Bible. "I said, 'You're bigger than me and you can save me from this oppression. If this is your word, you'll show me.'"
James is quick to admit it wasn't immediate, but he said answers would come as he battled negative thoughts over the next couple of weeks. Then one morning as he sat on a boulder, his head bowed in prayer, he spontaneously stood up in a gesture of worship, arms open wide.
"Out of the corner of my eye, I see this huge snake. It rears up and its tongue's out and it's staring at me," James said about the five- to–six-foot snake that had stealthily come from the jungle. "If I hadn't stood up right then ... ," he paused at the thought. "For me that was a turning point and it showed me that if I keep my eyes on God, he'll protect."
That was in 2008. Today James is a college graduate and successful professional. Free from depression, he is a man committed to his renewed faith.
And the young woman he met before heading to Costa Rica? He ended up marrying her. And unknown to James, she had consistently prayed for him since the first day they met.
It seems that when a person feels they don't have a prayer, God knows someone who does.
Lucy Luginbill is a career television producer-host and the Spiritual Life editor for the Tri-City Herald. In her column, she reflects on the meaning of her name, "Light Bringer." If you have a story idea for Light Notes, contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency.