Suicide Attempt: Those Who Knew Never Asked…

…why I attempted suicide in September 1982.  I later found out that it was a big secret from  family (or close friends) who seemed like they’d be obvious to inform (as in why I’d suddenly dropped off the face of the earth and was no longer at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign campus).  And, for the most part, it seemed  like nobody really gave a rats tail.  I did have an uncle who had visited me at the psych hospital the semester before, God bless him.  He wasn’t afraid to see whether or not I was drooling in a corner somewhere (I wasn’t – in fact, back in those days, I was downright intact compared to many there, and it was a private facility in the days where  you either went to a state hospital – like ‘One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest’- or to a private facility that was essentially a hotel with nurses and a lot of pills; there were no ‘treatment centers’).  There was the friend of another uncle who befriended me (strange situation).  But that was the extent of asking me WHY I was there.  My parents were the most silent.  Nobody ever asked me why I’d tried to end my own life.

That seems a bit odd. Maybe it was some sort of bizarre form of ‘manners’ to not ask.  But if there’s ever a scream from a mountain top that someone needs to say something about SOMETHING, it’s a premature, unnatural attempt to die. During that time, my mom was going through radiation, post-mastectomy, and I’d been dropped off at school a week early to accommodate her radiation schedule (I was fine with being at school early- though the dorms were kind of spooky without everybody there- there were about 10 of us in a 12-story dorm).  I don’t remember dealing with my mom’s cancer at all. I’d been in such a rush to ‘look normal’ after having to leave school the semester earlier… I know I’d never have wanted to ’cause trouble’.

Looking back, I’m not sure I know all of the reasons for the overdose, and only remember the first part of it when I mechanically took sleeping pills one after another with the only conscious thought being how much I just wanted some rest.  I don’t remember any actual ‘death wish’. I  ‘just’ wanted relief from so much pressure of being back on that campus after being ‘removed’ the semester before because of deteriorating anorexia, bulimia, and depression with a suicide ‘plan’ (that was pretty dang lethal).  I was trying SO hard to ‘look OK’, and that pressure was unbelievable. SO when I started taking those sleeping pills, one after another, I was only wanting relief from the pressure. I had intended to wake up, from what I remember. When I woke up after nearly 3 days in a coma, I was confused.  I also didn’t believe that they’d found the remnants of fifty antidepressant tablets when they pumped my stomach.  I don’t remember that at all. I eventually sent for the hospital and university health center records.  I needed gaps filled in.

I also wrote to my roommate years later, who told me that I’d been out at a local bar (underage), and came back to the room drunk before dinner. She hadn’t seen me actually take the sleeping pills (I do remember her being in the room, but I was sitting at my desk, my back to her; being drunk explains the impulsivity and lack of planning for consequences of my actions- and why the drugs ‘took’ so intensely). But she said I went to sleep and didn’t get up the next morning. She said I’d mumbled something about not going to class because I was so tired. When she got back late that afternoon, I was still out of it, and she couldn’t wake me up. At all.  She got one of my floor-mates from the last semester who knew me better, and she looked at me and called the ambulance (about 24 hours after taking the pills…it’s amazing that I survived that long). I was taken to the university health clinic, who sent me on to a regular medical hospital/trauma center with a blood pressure that was nearly meeting in the middle. (Not good).

In looking at the records, my ‘coma scale’ couldn’t go any lower. I responded to nothing. Zip.  And, understandably- but frighteningly, I remember none of that. I don’t know when I took the bottle of antidepressants.  I don’t remember having my stomach pumped (and used to get so uneasy later in my nursing career when OD patients were often ‘threatened’ with having their stomachs pumped as some sort of punishment; they were seen as deliberately causing unpleasant work for the ER staff who had ‘real’ patients to take care of- those who hadn’t put themselves in that position- never mind that the person was in so much emotional pain that they felt they had no other options).  I never told anybody that I planned to overdose. I don’t think I knew I would OD.   I’d been trying to fit in and be social (not something that came easily outside of my home church group setting). I wanted to be in school.

I do remember asking the nurse in ICU what I had been wearing when I was brought in, as that would tell me what day it had been. I’d been brought in on a Wednesday.  I had been wearing a red gingham shirt and overalls- I did remember putting those on on Tuesday- brought to the ER on Wednesday.  I probably looked like a dead farmer.  I was very close to not making it.  I sent for my medical records years later, and my vital signs were very bad- as in not much difference between the top and bottom numbers of my blood pressure, a heart arrhythmia, and very slow respirations.  I was given some resuscitative drugs to maintain my heart rhythm, and fluids to maintain my blood pressure, and over a few days, I woke up.  Freaked. Out.

My first recollection is of someone moving an oxygen mask to ask me a question, so they could see me talking.  Then fade to black again.  Then, I clearly remember a nurse going towards my crotch with a syringe (no explanation that she was removing the catheter). I’d never been in a real medical hospital before. From there on, it was a bunch of blips of memory, finally getting back to a ‘slow’ normal. I remember being very confused by the Saturday cartoons.  I’d been propped up in a chair with the cartoons on (at age 18?), and it was hard to follow them. Bugs Bunny was too ‘deep’. For a while, there was concern about permanent brain damage, and the psychiatrist I went back to was surprised I wasn’t impaired.  I also remember the charcoal diarrhea… I didn’t know the ‘rules’ in ICU about not disconnecting the EKG leads without help before getting out of bed ( I didn’t want to bother anybody), so it would look like I’d flatlined when I was just in a hurry to get to the bathroom.  They didn’t like that very much. I felt the bruising on my breastbone where I’d been ‘knuckle-rubbed’ to wake me up, and the scratchy feeling in my throat where tubes had been.  And it all confused me.

While I don’t remember a lot about the overall overdose, I do know I didn’t want to leave school! I wanted to do well !  I wanted to show my friends that I was OK ! (And with that, I had some desert property in the Everglades for anybody who was on board with that idea). I didn’t want to be a failure.  I have to admit, that at 18 years old, in an ICU room in Urbana, IL, I had a serious meltdown when I was told I’d be sent back to the nut farm I’d spent February through mid-April earlier that same year.  My parents had been called (that was like ramming a dagger into my heart- how could they call them? I especially didn’t want to disappoint them… but  how could they NOT call them?  I was a huge liability at that point). Everything was falling apart.  I was hysterically crying when I saw my mom and dad show up later that day (?Sunday- no cartoons, and mom had to be at radiation on Monday) after clearing out my dorm room and selling my books back to the bookstore– for some reason, losing those books was almost like the ultimate ‘proof’ that nobody believed in me… I’d been ‘removed’ from school. Again.  For weeks, I cried about that.

My therapist from the previous and current semester had been called in (she was recovering from a blood clot in her leg, and having a semi-miserable first months of pregnancy).  She explained that there were no other choices.  I couldn’t remember the overdose- that was almost worse than planning it out.  They couldn’t ensure my safety. Forest Hospital in Des Plaines, IL had already been notified, and since I was as medically stable as I was going to get, I was being discharged from the ICU to be driven back up to the suburbs of Chicago.  I was devastated.  I was horribly ashamed.  I’d failed. Again.  I didn’t see the ‘illness’ part of what was going on. I just saw failure.

It was almost a bit of a relief to be around people who knew me, who didn’t think I was a lost cause (though the next several months- September 1982 through early January 1983 weren’t exactly smooth at the hospital… I was a train wreck, and things got worse before they got better, in the days of endless insurance days inpatient; ‘losing’ school was absolutely devastating, and stirred up a lot).  I spent a total of 7 months in the hospital over 2 admissions.  I was tested (I’m reasonably intelligent, so they said- LOL) from one end to another, and I tested them. I’d always been pathologically well-behaved (confirmed years later by my folks), and at the nut farm, I blew through some rules.  I also tried to escape (going where?) and hurdled the gardner and his wheelbarrow only to collapse on the sidewalk about 1/2 a block from the hospital, in full view of a busy road…. nice to have that on my resumé. *rolling eyes*  At any rate, I was in a place to work on whatever was the immediate problem, which was making sure I didn’t blindly go on some life-ending rampage.  I was never a ‘danger to others’… it was always ‘danger to self’.  I’d give the shirt off my back to ‘others’.   Whatever had happened in that dorm room in Urbana couldn’t happen again.

In some ways I don’t know if I’ll ever know what was going through my ethanol laced brain that Tuesday afternoon when I started eating sleeping pills.  Maybe the booze was a huge part of that horrendous time.  It does explain a lot- but there had to be enough going on to ‘set up’ what happened.  What I did.  The memory loss has always been really hard to deal with. There are days that are just ‘gone’.  No matter how hard I try to figure it out, it’s just not there.  But I always wondered why nobody asked me if I’d really wanted to die.  The answer is no.

Eating Disorders and Suicide

This time of year stirs up memories of my first year at the University of Illinois (Champaign-Urbana campus).  I’d arrived there with anorexia well entrenched, after losing 45 pounds in about 6 weeks while working at a church summer camp as  a nature counselor.  I didn’t want to get to college ‘fat’.  And I didn’t (though I thought I was grotesquely huge), but I was already a slave to the eating disorder (ED) voice in my head that made eating absolute hell.  People who haven’t crossed the line to an actual eating disorder don’t get it. I don’t expect them to- and I’m thankful they don’t know what it’s like to have a war in their heads over the number of curds of cottage cheese that are ‘acceptable’.  Yeah- it gets pretty weird.

By the beginning of the Spring semester, and returning from Christmas break, I was a mess. Being home for the holidays had been very difficult- I’d done what I could to avoid being around family by working at the University during a missions conference (‘Urbana ’81’).  Ironically, I worked in the food service area. But I had to be at home at some point (and in Florida with my parents for Christmas itself- that was a battle I lost).  Trying to hide an active eating disorder and starving/purging isn’t easy- and caused even more havoc in my mind.  I didn’t return to school at all well.  I’ve never been clinically depressed unless I’ve been starving/malnourished.  And I was a mess when I got back to my dorm.

I’d been seeing a therapist since I had arrived on campus the fall of 1981, as my resident director, resident assistant, and dorm-mates had found me wearing 6 pairs of socks and a winter coat in late August in central Illinois… humidity with the heat was probably stifling- but I was freezing.  The RD could actually feel the cold coming through the socks. SO she called 911 and I was hauled off. I was diagnosed with anorexia nervosa the next morning, and ‘ordered’ to start therapy or leave school.  I had no clue what to think about therapy, but I knew that going home wasn’t an option. It would mean I’d failed.  SO I went to therapy.

That therapist ( a very nice youngish woman) probably never heard me say much more than “I don’t know”- and I didn’t !  I had absolutely no insight, and no clue what could have gone on in my past to lead to the eating disorder.  By the Spring semester of 1982, I was really falling apart, and had a plan to kill myself.  My roommate had moved out long before (because I was too QUIET !!), so I could be isolated for quite a while before anybody would have noticed I’d been missing.  I had planned to take the tranquilizers (Thorazine- supposed to chill me out enough that I didn’t care if I ate) I’d been given at the university health system pharmacy,  and lock myself in my room, IN my closet (with the keys), and just wait.   I’d become fairly resigned to the idea that I wasn’t going to  live all that long with the anorexia (which had included periodic bingeing at that point, and daily purging via 40 laxatives spread out throughout the day), so it was more about just dealing with the inevitable.  I didn’t really want to die– I just didn’t know how to get out of the ED.  I felt trapped, overwhelmed, ashamed, and hopeless.

The emotional pain had hit the tipping point.  For some reason (like wanting to live maybe?), I spilled my guts to my therapist, who promptly had me escorted to the university health system (via the University Fire Department….. subtle), where I stayed until arrangements could be made to have me shipped to Forest Hospital in Des Plaines, IL.   It was a nut house.  Back then, there were no eating disorder ‘treatment centers’… if you had a nutty problem, you went to the nut house. That in and of itself was terrifying, but I was even more afraid of facing my parents- and being a disappointment- so a longtime adult friend and her daughter (former babysitter) came to get me…once the blizzard passed, some 3-4 days later.  The therapist and health center folks had wanted me out of there much sooner, but the weather was a big problem.  So, I waited at the health center ‘hospital’ as dorm friends came and went, both trying to cheer me up and also to say goodbye.

Suicide  attempt averted. That time. The next fall, I returned to the university, and the pressure build-up was almost instantaneous.  More on that later….