Beneath the Surface

I was a full time graduate student and part-time research assistant. I was earning straight A’s and I had received prestigious funding to support my thesis research. I was married and owned a home. On the surface, I was in my element and I had a perfect life.

Inside, stress and chaos were consuming me. My partner was self-destructive and making choices that eroded the foundation of my life. Day to day, I was not sure if I would have a home to live in and food to eat. I began to lose touch with reality as his crazy-making led me to believe that his choices were my fault. Lectures and research rapidly escaped the sieve of my mind as they were displaced by subsequent waves of crisis. My schooling was the only constant in my life and being a student the only role over which I had any control. But that too was slipping away, because my ability to tread water was gone. With the start of each week, I questioned whether or not I could continue. I knew I was drowning and I knew that I couldn’t stand the physical and mental pain any longer.

Although I did not name my pain explicitly, I did reach out repeatedly to people in my life and begged them to help me, to protect me and to speak up for me. For several months, I had resolved that I would tell the next person that I spoke with that I had plans to take my own life. Not because I had nothing to live for, but because I wanted the pain to stop. Religious leader, professor, friend, family member, doctor. Please see my pain, I would try to transmit with my eyes, don’t just hear my voice. During each interaction, my courage would evaporate. My despair would deepen with each interaction, because I could not find the words to name my plan to end my pain.

Finally, my hopelessness was all consuming. After reading an email in my Western University email inbox about the upcoming Mental Health Awareness Week,  I had something to focus on. I would walk into an office, request to speak to someone, and say the word that drowned out everything else. Suicide.

The staff member who assisted me appeared flustered. She provided me with a clipboard of forms to complete. For the first time, I identified that I was planning to end my life.

Despite this disclosure, I was told that there was no one to speak with me. The excuses poured into my sinking mind. A team member was off sick. They were short staffed. They were overbooked. No appointments until after Reading Week. A few vague references to support lines.

My hope evaporated. I had finally asked for help and I was not going to receive it. I walked out of the office convinced that I only had one option.

In the midst of my distress, a name came into my mind. Someone on campus who had served as a sounding board and mentor to me since my return to school. I gathered up my courage one last time. I made the call. She said that she could meet with me the next day.

Okay, I thought, one more day. I can wait one more day.

When I walked into her office, I had my confession sitting on my lips during our entire conversation, but I still could not vocalize my plan. Admitting the day before had snuffed out my courage. But she listened and she observed and she saw what I could not say.

She named my plan. She told me that she was not comfortable leaving me alone. She was not going to let me go to class. She knew I needed help right away.

She drove me to the Emergency Room. She sat with me as I named my plan to nurses and doctors. She called my partner to tell him that I was not coming home. She draped blankets over the institutional bed and tucked me in like a child and read to me. She told me that I was safe and she would be there to support me in my healing. She was true to her promise. She visited me during the 3.5 months that I needed to restore my physical and mental health, not because she had to, but because she wanted to. She saved my life.

My purpose in sharing my story is not to lay blame, but simply to point out that, although one person made the difference in saving my life, there were several lost opportunities for others to look past the surface and to see the true poverty that prompted my mental health crisis. Not only was I to the point that I could not feed, clothe, and house my family, I felt that I had exhausted all of the patience and time that others possessed. If no one had the time to listen long enough to see that I was in crisis, then clearly I was not worth anyone’s time.

Whenever a mental health crisis is notable enough to make the headlines, there is more talk about earlier intervention and more resources that need to be available going forward. Please consider that perhaps in the story of each person who ends their life, there are clearer signs than we would like to admit that someone is losing hope or burning out. That perhaps it is not simply that we need more programs and more referrals, but that we simply need more people who chose to see beyond the superficial stability of someone’s life. That perhaps the end of the story may come simply because it has already been shared so many times, but maybe in a way that we are not comfortable with or at a time that we are too busy to hear.