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Chris - The First Steps (Part Two)

"In the profile of every recovery from attempted suicide, there is a moment on which one’s entire fate balances." R. A. Heckler, PhD

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-I know your little girl. She’s the most beautiful creature I’ve ever met.  You know your husband.  Do you really want him to raise her?-

 

(Continued from March 26th Blog)

‘I don’t even want you to tell me [how you feel] right now, [said the attending physician]. Then he said, ‘and I’m gonna tell you a secret. You see, in this state, it’s illegal to attempt suicide, and they send you to the state hospital for a month if you try, plus you have to pay a fine. You have to handle all the legal ramifications and it’s nasty. So I admitted you under a diagnosis of food poisoning, and you should know that my career’s on the line and you are holding it in your hands’—and he squeezed my hand. [He said] ‘I’m gonna have to trust you that you’re gonna act differently than I expect you want to right now.’

In minutes, the years of isolation that surrounded Chris were gently pierced.

As he’s talking, I realize that my actions are going to affect him. He says, ‘I don’t expect you to want to live for a while. I know how you are feeling, but I also know your husband and your little girl. She’s the most beautiful creature I’ve ever met. He lets that sink in a little, and then he says, “You know your husband. Do you really want him to raise her?” The question had never entered my mind! I knew this was the voice of reason.

Patient and gentle, her admitting physician seemed to be the very archetype of the Good Doctor. Skillfully, undemonstratively, he empathized with her dilemma while challenging her to poke through her suffering and grasp a wider perspective.

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.

I knew nothing about psychological innards at that point, but two things had happened all of a sudden that were new. First of all, he didn’t put me down for wanting to leave my husband. Most everyone else seemed to think I was a bad person for wanting to leave him. And then, even though I still felt real dead inside, there was this other thing out here, separate from myself, which was a task worth trying to accomplish.

In the profile of every recovery from attempted suicide, there is a moment on which one’s entire fate balances. It is the first step, a hesitant and humble, but palpable beginning. First steps are critically important, because they reflect the birth of a nascent feeling that life can somehow unfold in a new and different way.

I still felt like ‘I don’t want to live’” but at the same time, I thought, ‘if I’m gonna raise my daughter, I’m gonna have to live. That means I’m gonna have to get through these feelings.’ It was so early, though, and I didn’t trust my thoughts, and I didn’t trust myself being alone. So I did the hardest thing of all.

In such a small town, there was only one place where she felt she might get through the day. Chris was nervous how she’d be received, but there was no alternative. Years later, she could still feel how fearful she had been.

There was this hardware store in the center of town where everybody came. It had a potbelly stove and tables, you know, and you could go in and have tea. That’s where I’d hang out a lot of the time, and so did everybody else. Everyone would come in, have lunch together, and talk. I knew everybody in that town and I knew that everyone heard what I had done the night before. But in spite of that, I knew that I had to have people around me if I was going to make it through that day, and so I took my daughter with me. God, I can feel the fear as I talk about it.

I went into the store and I talked to the woman who owned it. I told her I needed to hang out all day. 'Could I do that? Will that be okay?'

She said, ‘Yes.’ And then she said, ‘And if anybody says anything, I’ll kick them out!’

 

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Chris - The First Steps

"We can do no great things, only small things with great love.”

                                                                            Mother Teresa.

 

"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

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Courage

“The original definition of courage when it first came into the English language, from the Latin word ‘cor’, meaning ‘heart’, was to tell the story of who you are with your whole heart.”  – Brené Brown, TED Lecture, 2010

 

Some years ago I did what looked like a crazy thing.  Over a three year period, as I traveled the United States for my work as a trainer of therapists, I put out the word that I wanted to interview people who had attempted suicide, and specifically, people who, through their own hard work, and the assiduous care of others, reclaimed the qualities of balance, perspective, connectedness and happiness in their lives.  People who came back to life, literally from death’s door.

Partly, it came from my training as a researcher.  I was taught that if you wanted to understand a deep part of human experience, in this case psychological and emotional healing, it was essential to listen to and chronicle the stories of those who had truly been there; who had powerfully experienced it's entire arc. This is called participatory research and it’s less about statistics and more about “stepping into someone else’s shoes” in order to derive a true sense of what it’s like.

And, partly, it came from a quirky optimism I seem to have, that arose both in working with others, but also in my own life; a recognition that when we are pushed to the edge, up against the wall…really challenged by significant life issues, that that wall represents the edge of the box we are trapped in; the box we rummage around in that generates a lot of suffering for ourselves, and most often, for our loved ones.  So, bad news-good news.  The bad news is that we suffer, often caught in this box of limited perspective and constricted narratives.  The good news, is that when we are up against the edge, the inside wall, we are only a hairs-breath away from jumping out of the box altogether!

So, I traveled the country, sitting with people, in their homes or in nature, often for three, four, or five hours at a time, listening to and recording their stories, sometimes harrowing and unflinching in detail. But listening particularly to the parts of the story that detailed how people began to embrace life again, and humbly, little by little, came to believe again – in possibility, in others, and, blessedly, in themselves.   I discovered that these deeply personal stories, were also universal stories.  I learned that in listening without prejudice or fear, these stories shed much light on precisely how all of us can bring ourselves back to life…not only from the brink of life and death; not just in a suicidal context, but with regard to the dizzying array of other challenges all of us face in our lives.  Those I interviewed told their stories, with a full and open heart, both to help others, and so that one day, others wouldn’t have a story like that of their own to tell.  I was blown away by their courage. Still am.

A final note:  In writing Waking Up, Alive, it was not my intention to create another trend or another series of identities through which people can define themselves. In fact, it is my fervent hope that as we move further into the 21st Century, people will define themselves in terms of their strengths and their potential rather than their wounds. I have undertaken this work in order to break the silence to which so many—be they survivors of suicide attempts or the enormous number of people who secretly contemplate the act—have sentenced themselves, and to open communication between those who have attempted and those who haven’t. Ultimately, this book was written for everyone, for each person bears his or her share of pain, and everyone has felt stuck at one point or another in his or her life. I chose to write  Waking Up, Alive so that we may remember that there always exists a “yes” after what seems to be the final “no.”

I hope that in some small measure these words may alleviate suffering in the mysterious world in which we live.

 

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