Thursday, October 31, 2013

How to Save a Life

Author's Note: This post is from before the present direction  of this blog. I leave it here in the hopes that it, like the other stories on this site, will be compelling to someone. Many men and women deal with similar thoughts throughout their lives - suicide is a very real problem that takes too many lives. If you are experiencing these thoughts, you are not alone and you are worth help. Talk to someone; a counselor, a friend, anyone you trust.

This night is many things to many people. The mainstream uses it as a reason to don disguises and wander the neighborhoods in search of a sugar fix. The college-aged use it as an excuse to throw another party. Many who have been or are parents stay in with the lights on, hoping to see some creative costuming from passers-by. One friend of mine celebrates her birthday. Others following the pagan and druidic traditions see it as a holy day when the veil between life and death is at its thinnest.

It is this last interpretation that I keep settling on as I undertake what is likely to become my Halloween/Hallowe'en/Samhain tradition of reflecting on the events of my life this past year. Many people do this as the calendar advances another year, but I find this day to be more meaningful.

Why October 31st?

Two years ago, I nearly crossed that veil. Not through an accident or the malicious intent of my fellow human, but by an act of personal will. Two years ago, I had convinced myself that life was not worth living. Two years ago, I decided I was disposable.

It was a cold day in Corvallis, Oregon. I met with my group to finalize our presentation of a major project. As we were working, my email inbox blinked. It was from Dr. Harding.

Some background: This was my "senior year". Like many students, I did not complete my degree program in the advertised four years. Part of the fallout of having spent nearly three of those years in what I now recognize as an abusive relationship was a strong anxiety about some very mundane occurrences. I would wake up in the mornings and be unable to make myself leave the perceived safety of my bed until I had 'agreed' to not go in to class. Once out of bed things were fine until I tried to leave.

I was a self-made prisoner in my own home, and I was ashamed of every minute.

This shame only made things worse. Having missed class on Monday, going in on Tuesday to face a disappointed instructor was impossible.

You can see where this is going, I'm certain.

My academic performance (predictably) took a nosedive, making it even more difficult to force myself to go to classes. My instructors had no idea of this. I lied to them, told them I was ill. In hindsight this was true, but not in the way I was painting it for them.

My instructors were understanding, based on what I gave them. They were willing to give me extra time to submit assignments. Dr. Harding was very willing to work with me regarding revised deadlines and the like, and this is where the problem started.

Having missed nearly three weeks of classes in a ten-week term is a lot of ground to catch up on. In previous terms I had responded to such overload by a triage strategy, cutting a class to save the others. This term, though, I had nothing to cut if I wanted to graduate, so I mashed my head into the wall and tried to catch up in every class. I ended up succeeding at none of this.

The one area that I did not fall behind in was a group project. My life was going to hell, but I wasn't about to ditch on my project group. This took over all of the time that I would have been using to catch up and thus I didn't. Dr. Harding was upset about this, and his email conveyed that fact. He asked me to drop from his class (the one that included the group project) as I was not taking advantage of his merciful syllabus bending.

The idea crystallized in my mind that none of my instructors would have to deal with my weaknesses again. I'd make the presentation (our project came out terribly) and having completed all of the obligations I cared about, would go home, and would proceed to kill myself by poisoning. My background in chemistry and desire to not make a mess of things made this the obvious choice of method.

The time came, we made our presentation, couldn't acceptably answer the questions of our panel (I had been outvoted on the approach we would take and didn't have much experience with the popular method), and as soon as we were done I left.

I don't think I'll ever understand what happened next. I left Merryfield Hall and needed to go left to catch the bus that would take me home. Instead, I went right. Without knowing quite how, I ended up on the fifth floor of Snell Hall at the reception desk for the university's counselling service.

I had been turned away from making an appointment twice before - they have this moronic idea that allowing people to come in and schedule appointments in the future is a bad thing. Had they turned me away yet again I wouldn't be typing these words.

Something in my eyes, or maybe in the way I was speaking, finally clued the receptionist in. She took me to a meeting room off the side of the waiting area so I'd have some privacy and told me someone would be in soon to see me.

It was only then that the floodgates opened up and I let myself sob out my feelings. My shame and guilt over my anxiety, my fears of failure and certainty that they had been realized, my conviction that I was wrong to want help and even more wrong to need it.

It was about 20 minutes before Linda came into the room and about 15 before I stopped sobbing. It was about a minute into the session that the tears began to flow again. I wept out my feelings of worthlessness, of abandonment, and of shame. But mostly I just wept. Through it all, Linda did something nobody else had ever been willing to do: She listened.When I took my time to answer after a question, she waited. Granted, she probably gleaned more information form those silences than from the words I spoke, but she was not afraid of letting them drag on.

I had been to counselors before. All of them seemed to have a need to fill up quiet space with words as though asking the umpteenth variant of a question would result in getting an answer faster.

Through her quiet listening, Linda told me something that no one else had. She told me that I was important as a person. She told me that I didn't need to earn her regard or her help. She treated me like a human being instead of a human doing.

When I returned to OSU this fall, I stopped by in the hopes of gleaning more wisdom from this kind woman only to find that she had also moved on to her next stop in life.

So wherever you are Linda, I hope you read this. You saved my life that day in a way that few people could do. Thank you.