"We can do no great things, only small things with great love.”
"The doctor was right. I still felt I wanted to die. I knew I still wanted to die, but I was also angry. I realized there was no way in hell that I wanted my husband to raise my daughter. I didn’t want her to feel as powerless and abandoned as I felt. It felt like he was giving me a task I could accomplish even though I felt so bad."
Chris, now a therapist herself, met me in her office. It was summer in Santa Rosa, California, dry and hot. The indoors provided a welcomed relief from the sun. We sat down, registering our initial impressions, and I was immediately intrigued. Chris is a large woman, big-boned and a little heavy. Her arms were muscular, her hands veined and rough-hewn. Her story took place some years before, in a small town in rural southern Oregon. Chris is a woman who has worked the land, canned her own food, found a way to make things work in difficult times. She is not afraid to be physical. She isn’t averse to hard work. She has a ready smile and a hearty laugh. When she speaks about her life, and her first days in the hospital after her suicide attempt, she is straightforward and candid.
I just felt really hopeless, like just not wanting to live. I had no idea what was happening to me. I was very angry. I was simmering underneath. The doctor came in. He was clearly very tired from being on all night.
Chris had been braced for condescension and reproach, and stiffened when the attending physician walked in. She was surprised what happened next.
He sat down and took my hand in his: he just picked up my hand and held it! He seemed very loving. I was dumbfounded! He held my hand and brushed the hair from my face and said, “I’m not even gonna ask you how you feel. I know you feel miserable.
In times of crisis, simple acts of caring are often pushed aside in favor of intricate technical interventions, both medical and psychological. For those who spoke about early moments in the hospital after their attempt, however, it was the simple acts of kindness and the desire to understand that were most treasured. Sometimes they proved powerful enough to ignite the first spark of life, the first steps, after years of courting death. The night before, Chris had to endure the disdain of her new hospital roommates.
I was in a room with two other women. I could overhear them: it wasn’t hard; they were talking pretty loud. They were very angry that I was put in “their” room.
Chris suffered not only a profound loss of privacy, but also reproach for what she had done. This time, it didn’t come from the hospital staff, but from the patients, as if there was a hierarchy of illnesses, an unspoken caste, with suicide at the bottom. Somehow, her story quickly became public knowledge and she was exposed to derisive and malicious commentary. Hours after the attempt, Chris lay awake in her hospital bed, separated from her fellow patients by only a curtain. Both hyped from the drugs and exhausted by her ordeal, she could see their silhouettes as they spoke.
They seemed to know why I was there, and thought I was horrible for wanting to kill myself. I remember them saying, ‘She should be ashamed of herself, when she has everything to live for,’ and ‘Why did the doctor put her in here?’
Understandably, the following morning, Chris expected the worst when the attending physician walked in, haggard from a long shift. What happened next was unexpected and startling.
(End of Part One. Read Part Two, tomorrow.)
Waking Up, Alive is now Available on Kindle