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.

Fragility and Resilience

There are just some people in life that ‘stick’ in memories.  Even after decades of no contact, and then with a reconnection on FaceBook, they bring back all of the good stuff that they’re associated with. Not just a fun afternoon, but the totality of the experience they were a part of years ago.  For me, that was an incredible experience as a camper and then a summer staff member for a total of 10 years at Timber-lee Christian Center in East Troy, Wisconsin (USA). Even though I went to a ‘solid’ church as a kid, Timber-lee has always been my spiritual foundation. People there live what they believe. It’s not lip service, and it’s not ‘on’ when people are watching only to be turned off when the kids leave. It’s legit.  It was 24/7 immersion in Christianity that was good.  Not the negative stuff that can be associated with Christians, but an authenticity that is hard to find. I couldn’t get enough of the place, and wanted to live there permanently (they didn’t have any openings for full-time campers…).

One of the people I first met when I was 8 years old became very ill this week, and her heart stopped. She was somewhere that provided her with near immediate CPR, and EMS was called. They got her heart restarted, and the ER she was taken to figured out the problem and opted for induced hypothermia (dropping her body temperature) and a coma to minimize any neurological complications (that nobody hears about with CPR). It’s assumed by most non-medical people that when the heart is restarted, all is well. That is the outcome in a very few cases.  Recovery is a process- not an event.

A couple of things have stood out in the four days since this happened.  First, I have learned an entirely different level of prayer.  I’ve prayed as long as I can remember, but I’m not sure that I’ve ever had someone come to mind as often as this incredible woman has, or that I’ve actually pleaded to God on behalf of someone else. I’ve prayed for healing for other people, but this has been different.   My sincerity in the past has been just as strong, and I’m not sure that I can really describe how this is different. It just is.

Second, I’m realizing how important those years at Timber-lee have been.  I’ve always been so thankful for the experiences I had there- whether the week long  sessions as a camper, or the 3 month sessions on the summer staff for 2 1/2 summers.  The people I met there are entwined with the experience.  They can’t be separated, and that’s  wonderful.  When I think of one, I’m flooded with the memories of the other.  It’s a package deal.  The feelings of safety, love, fellowship, and acceptance have never been replicated. Ever.

The fragility of life smacked me in the face four days ago (as it did much more so for those who are closer- her husband, and friends and family).  The experiences at camp have been my ‘go to’ memories to ferret out good days when I was going through rough times.  This week, there is part of that whole picture that is in trouble.  The reports come in daily, and I can’t get to them fast enough. I spread them to other pages where people are waiting for news. And we’re all praying.  There is hope.

I’m not sure I’m explaining myself all that well.  I’m  a bit overwhelmed, and in some ways I don’t feel entitled to that level of emotion, as we didn’t have contact for so long.  But it’s Timber-lee and one of the handful of people that has had an impact on me since 1972.  I even wrote a ‘report’ about my first week at camp when I was 8 years old, and she is in that ‘report’.  I got to see her in July, and it was so great to be back at the camp and see people who made it what it has been in my life.  And now she’s in a coma.

As a nurse, I know the possible outcomes. I worked in a coma stimulation unit at a brain injury rehab center many years ago. I saw some horribly sad situations. But I also saw some amazing stories and recoveries.  The people I took care of had been in comas for many weeks to months before they started showing signs of improvement, and the injuries were often because of external trauma (accidents). The damage had been more extensive, and intense. They started out in much worse shape, at least structurally; many had parts of their brains or skulls removed because of the damage.   My friend has already been reacting well to commands, and her reflexes are good. That gives me much hope for her outcome. Yet, I also know that there are no guarantees.  SO, while I’m thrilled every day with the updates, I hold back because of what I know and have seen. And yet, to the part of me that is still seeing Timber-lee as only existing with the people I knew there still like they were, I can’t allow myself to accept anything less than a full  recovery.  And that’s what I pray for, as do many, many others.  This woman is cherished.

I guess when I remember Timber-lee, I’m transported in time to the age I was then, and the feelings I remember when I was there.  It’s technically just a ‘place’…but it was much more than that to me.  I saw how Christians live in a way that I wanted to emulate.  When I’ve been in situations that were literally life-threatening, my first thoughts  often go back to something from camp.  That’s my feel-good place. It’s where I felt the most freedom to be who I really was during that time in my life.  And, I learned so much from the people I met there- either as a camper or on staff.  It also played a role in why I became an RN.

My friend who is sick is one of those examples of being a Christian that has been a role model, even in the 30 years we had no contact.  Her life has had an impact on tens of thousands of lives as she’s worked at the camp for decades. When I’ve thought of her over the years, I smiled.  When I hear music that she taught the music groups, or camp songs we sang, I smile.  When we’ve had FaceBook contact, I smile.  She’s a ‘feel good’ person.  That’s a quality I respect and admire so much. And she’s a very solid Christian, in ways that encourage and inspire- not judge or demean.

So, this is a hodgepodge of words that may not make sense.  That’s OK.  I just needed to write this.  I’m praying that her recovery exceeds expectations, and she can resume her life with this being just a blip in the totality of her life.  I can’t express what Timber-lee and the people I associate with it really mean to me. It goes beyond just a ‘place’.  The experiences were  heaven-blessed.  So many times the good I got from there helped  get me through some really lousy stuff. I can’t really explain that either, except to say that I felt that the God I saw in the people I met there was more real to me because of having been there.  Maybe that’s it- they showed me God.  They made Him more real.  I knew about God from the time I was very young, and believed in Jesus as a young elementary school kid…but I met Him at Timber-lee, through people like this friend who now needs Him to surround her with healing and restoration.

This one’s for you, MK.

September 11, 2001

My dad called me around 8:00 a.m. Central Daylight Savings Time to ask me if I had the TV on. “You won’t believe what they have done”.  They. THEY?. They… I was 5 days post-op from having scalp surgery and vein stripping on one leg, and was still a little out of sorts from the anesthesia and healing process from that.  I dragged myself out of bed and turned on the TV.

At first it was just too much to process. There was smoke coming from both of the World Trade Centers.  They.  It was incomprehensible that fighting a fire at that ‘altitude’ was going to work.  I was having trouble knowing what to think, what to do, what to feel… and I was a couple of thousands of miles away.  They were doing something to us in New York. I saw footage of thousands of people just looking up, their expressions a conglomeration of shock, disbelief, and horror.  How many people were in the Towers?  At that time, estimates were as high as 50,000 regular employees of the buildings and businesses in them. That number didn’t even register in my head.

I saw  replays of the second plane hit the other Tower.  The fireball.  The people who had to have died instantly and then the ones who were trapped filled my head.  The news kept showing people waving jackets and improvised ‘flags’. But they were too high.  When I saw footage of the second plane hit, I knew who they were.  Bin Laden was the one who had done other attacks, but nothing like this. His minions were attacking the United States.  Here.  I called my dad back to ask him if I should go get my car filled up with gas. I don’t know why that was important, but it seemed that everyone gets gas during an emergency.  Nobody knew all of the targets at that point, and I was in Texas. Lots of military bases in Texas.  For some reason gas seemed important. But I was immobilized by what I was seeing.

Another plane hit the Pentagon at 8:37 a.m. CDST. The Pentagon? How could anything get through the Pentagon?  More dead. More trapped. More hurting. Families watching, waiting… More fire.

I watched the South Tower implode at 8:59 a.m. CDST.  How could that happen?  It was a huge building full of people.  Full of people.  How many were trapped, but alert, as the floors started to fall out beneath their feet?  How many knew exactly what was happening as they fell 70-90 stories to their deaths?  How many were instantly incinerated when the planes hit?   How many really jumped?  Then the second tower went down. How many families were watching their loved ones die?  Were they alone? Was someone with them as they watched their lives change forever?

At 9:03 a.m. CDST, the fourth plane went down in Pennsylvania, obliterating it.  The stories were scattered about what had happened, but word was that the passengers got control of the plane and crashed it themselves.  More lack of comprehension, and awe at their presence of mind in the middle of the crisis when I was dumbstruck many states away.  What had they felt? How had that group of people been on the same plane, and able to enact a plan to avoid more disaster and loss of life as they heard of what had happened in NYC and DC?  How had they been able to call loved ones ahead of time and get word about what was happening?  How were those loved ones when they heard news of that plane going down… Was someone with them to offer some token of support in a situation that defies the scope of ‘normal’ grief?

9:28 a.m. CDST- The North Tower falls.  The debris and aerosolized concrete  and building materials blanket the end of Manhattan, while the rest of the city has amazingly blue skies. The tops of the towers are both gone; the city is engulfed in particles of walls, papers, paint, office equipment…people.  The steel frames were bent and twisted when what little of what was left  materialized on the TV screen. It was still hard to really understand the magnitude of what had happened.  I was numb.

The next two weeks, I was off of work because of the surgery, and 24/7 for much of that time, the news channels were glued to the coverage; cable stations ceased programming. I was immersed in the news about the attacks continuously.  For some reason, I couldn’t turn the TV off.  I had to know what was going on. Were there more attacks?  Were we safe?  I’d see the shots of people putting up photos and descriptions of their missing loved ones on fences and walls near the Trade Center site.  They had to ‘know’, but also had to hang on to a bit of hope until there was none left to grasp.

Rescue workers were going through the wreckage of the Towers with buckets, pausing only occasionally when a body was found.  Everyone stopped working, paying their respects to the person coming out in a flag covered stretcher.  The NYFD carried out their priest on a chair. Dead.  Both the NYPD and NYFD lost SO many of their own.  How unfair that anybody die, but they died going in to help the others.  And the buildings caved in.  They didn’t have a chance up in those buildings or near the bottom where the twisted pieces fell.

Dogs wore special boots to keep from shredding their paws on the steel and glass.  They were there for survivors at first, and then those who were temporarily buried in that burning metal tomb.

In total, 2,606 people died in NYC, 125 at the Pentagon, and 40 in the plane crashed by heroes in a field in Pennsylvania.  The youngest to die was 2 1/2 years old.  Ninety countries lost citizens.  Nineteen highjackers also died, but I refuse to add them to the total victim count. In total, more than 2975 people were killed in the span of  102 minutes.  For what?  

In two days, it will be the 11th anniversary.  I still can’t see documentaries about that day without dissolving into tears, and I wasn’t even close to the situation.  This had no ‘borders’ or ‘city limits’. This was an attack on America, collateral damage in the form of foreign nationals- our friends- be damned.  It still makes no sense.  I still wonder how the people in NYC deal with their grief, and how the families of the victims are doing.  I wonder how those who inhaled that stuff  have fared; various illnesses have been reported- in those who were there to help.  My guess is that the actual number of victims is really unknown; the families and friends of those who actually died will never be the same. They are victims,too. And survivors.

September 11, 2001 showed the vulnerability of all of us.  While I’ve gone through a personal attack in my home, the magnitude of 9/11 isn’t something any of us could comprehend.  There are countries that go through terrorism regularly, but not us. Oklahoma City was the closest we got to knowing what that is like. Even the first WTC bombings didn’t come close to 9/11.

I changed that day.  The fact that life can be cut short in a nanosecond at the hands of lunatics was graphically shown for days on end.  For the first few weeks after I returned to work, I was overwhelmingly annoyed when my coworkers talked about everyday mundane ‘problems’ (matching shoes to a dress for some 3rd rate banquet? Puhleeze).  It took me a while to get out of those two weeks, and back into my regular life.

But I’m so insignificant in the grand scheme of things.  What about those families and friends, and now the survivors of those lost in the wars fought in response to 9/11.  In many ways it has been a world war.  I’ll never forget that day, and I hope those who were too young to remember it will grasp the magnitude of that day and learn from history.  I hope that we can regain some of our prior sense of safety without neglecting common sense.  It happened once… we can never guarantee it won’t happen again.  But we have to go on living if we are to really honor those who were lost.  Otherwise they win.