Danville, Virginia

The South Saved My Soul

By Nicholas Harrelson

Folks around here often say “home is where the heart is.” I can attest to the truth in this simple but profound statement. I have lived most of my life on one side or the other of the Virginia-North Carolina border, having been born in Greensboro and raised in a combination of Caswell County, North Carolina, and Franklin and Danville, Virginia. I identify strongly with the Piedmont region of the South and enjoy a good vinegar-based barbecue sandwich smoked over hickory or cherry wood just as much as the next person. My accent is recognizable, and oftentimes fellow Virginians ask me where I’m from and shake their heads tellingly when I answer with Danville. I take pride in these regional quirks of mine, though that wasn’t always the case.

It wasn’t so long ago I was without an identity, a place to call home or even the simple desire to associate with anything greater than myself. I served two tours of duty in Iraq as an infantryman with the 29th Infantry Division, the famed “Blue and Grey,” a unit composed of former Union and Confederate brigades following the Civil War. My battalion was the 116th Infantry Brigade Combat Team, the Stonewall Brigade. I took great pride in the history and esprit de corps of my unit.

On October 6, 2011, I was wounded while performing combat operations in southern Iraq. I took my injuries in stride, and though I was unable to perform missions with my fellow soldiers, I knew they were in good hands and I did not fear for their safety in my absence. Many assume that the hard times, violence and danger end with the last day of a deployment. I, too, thought the same. Little did I or my fellow brothers in arms know the transition from soldier to civilian is one of the most arduous and difficult tasks the military can throw your way. Where once I felt a part of something grand, noble and honorable, suddenly I felt cast aside, without direction, without guidance.

I can still remember the day my world imploded. My phone rang in the living room of my apartment in Huntsville, Alabama. My commanding officer called to tell me that my best friend and roommate from my most recent deployment, a man with whom I shared the nickname Woody (though he spelled his “Woodie,” simply to be different) had taken his own life and subsequently shattered the lives of those close to him. I’ve never cried such bitter tears and doubt I ever will again. On that day, I lost my identity: that subtle, intangible aspect of ourselves that grants our personalities a little extra spark of confidence. Severe medical issues forced me to move back in with my parents in Danville, Virginia. I underwent surgery and locked myself in a bedroom for six months, speaking to my family through a literal and figurative wall. Since that time, I have lost four close friends to suicide, and I believe a lack of identity following their time in the military was a serious contributing factor to each. I grew to fear close connections with others, as it seemed they all went away. When isolation no longer satisfied the gaping void in my heart, I turned to the drugs being given to me for the various aches and pains from my injuries and spiraled even further into the abyss, saying and doing things I never imagined myself capable of, even further isolating myself from the ones I loved.

I describe this scene so I can properly tell you how the South saved my soul. I’ve long been enamored with my Southern identity; whether it be the history, the food, the culture, the music; I’ve identified with it all at one point or another. Yet, having been immersed in the culture from such a young age, I took for granted the very thing that made me who I was. I struggled for nearly four years; against the shame of being unable to help my friends when it truly mattered, the shame of being dependent on drugs to ease the fury and pain in my head, and painful, debilitating injuries that seemed to linger for years. I cursed my decision to join the military; I cursed God; I cursed my family. All to no avail.

One day, I picked up a Cormac McCarthy novel, “The Road.” It seems improbable that someone would find redemption in a McCarthy novel, but I identified with the pain, hopelessness and stubbornness of many of his characters. It was McCarthy who first lit the flame of my rekindled passion for the South. His use of lyrical prose and the dark nature of his characters spoke to me. His description of Southern landscapes were painted across my mind’s eye like Van Gogh’s “Starry Night,” beautiful, yet elusive and otherworldly.

I began venturing out to the wild areas near my home in Virginia Beach and later Elizabeth City, inspired by the words I now sought comfort and guidance through. I would lose myself for days on end in places such as First Landing State Park and the Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge, searching for Spanish moss and live oaks. I took thousands of pictures and annoyed my family and friends with constant discussions about the flora and fauna of the Southern Coastal Plain. Many of my friends actually began taking bets as to how long it would take me to mention Spanish moss in a conversation. After months of this behavior, my father told me I seemed the happiest I’d been in years.

I had found myself. I had rediscovered my happiness by simply losing myself in the beauty of our Southern home. Where medicine failed, where therapy lacked impact, the simple beauty and quiet of Southern swamps, marshlands and islands spoke to my soul in a way that nothing else could. We are oftentimes led to believe that science, technology and medicine are the end-all-be-all of our mental and physical health. None helped me, and Lord knows I tried them all. I was unwilling to concede that something as simple as a tree or a stand of Spanish moss was capable of such profound change and healing, but the evidence became too much to ignore. Our Southern landscapes, whether bleak and foreboding, or bright and uplifting, carry with them the weight of our deep cultural heritage. Our Southern identity is integrally connected with the land we call our home, more so than is the case anywhere else in the country. We speak of the land below the Mason-Dixon with reverence and respect because it truly is an integral part of our identity.

Since that time, I’ve traveled clear across the South on numerous occasions, tracking down unique and beautiful places to lose myself in or trying every regional style of barbecue our Southern home has to offer. My appetite to see and do is insatiable, and I would have it no other way. So many times I have heard the same story of people taking their Southern birth and heritage for granted, wishing at a young age for the bright lights and watered-down culture of the big cities only to one day, likely in a time of serious hardship and introspection, discover that they find solace and comfort in their Southern home, that home is truly where the heart resides. I rediscovered the beauty of my home, and, luckily for me, I rediscovered myself and the identity I so desperately sought. I can truly say the South saved my soul and for that, I will be forever grateful.