On Dying – Almost but not entirely
Posted on October 22, 2011
Sometimes you have to go miles out of your way to go a very short distance correctly.
– Edward Albee
I believe it was sometime in early 1971. My memory of this time is particularly fuzzy. My mother, sister, and I had moved to another, larger town after my parent’s divorce and I had become increasingly sad and suicidal. Nothing too unusual, thoughts of suicide go back about as far as I can remember – no later than age ten. It’s never seemed strange to me, these thoughts are just a part of who I am.
I’d rather not go into the specific details that led up to it, but one evening I found myself taking one hundred Dilantin capsules, downing them with several glasses of tea. I wasn’t at home, but parked outside the house of an acquaintance. More than once, I’d gone to the door to ask for something to drink, then returned to my Rambler American to swallow another handful of pills. It seemed to me it was simply time to go. I felt I’d endured all the pain I could bear. I’d graduated high school at mid-term, having taken a couple of summer school classes the previous summer in order to get out early. In fact, I almost didn’t graduate at all. I’d pushed my mother to the limit and she’d invited me to move out shortly after the beginning of my senior year. Living with a roommate for a while, I rarely bothered to show up for school. After a while, however, I returned home, made up the work, and the graduation proceeded as planned. My diploma was mailed to me because I refused to take part in any graduation ceremony. In fact, I’d asked that no picture of me appear in the high school annual. We were new in town and I was new at that high school. I already felt like I’d disappeared and I suppose this was one way of pointing out that I no longer existed. I was now “photo not available”.
The Dilantin showed up on the scene a couple of years earlier. My parents knew I had been in a deep depression for some time and took me to a psychiatrist in Dallas. I’m afraid I have to admit I’ve never quite forgiven that man for some of the things he told me. Anyway, he prescribed Dilantin – up to three a day – for my depression. Not sure why Dilantin. For years I thought I had petit mal epilepsy. That’s what I heard him tell me. “What I heard” was to play a major role in my life. Turns out, I found out much later, he’d said Dilantin was also used for petit mal epilepsy. Well, six of one, half dozen of the other, I suppose. The point was that my prescription came to me each time in a bottle of 100 pills and I used them liberally.
So, there I sat. What to do next? Where to go to die? I finally decided to get away from that house and drive down to the printing office my father owned in that town. I had a key since I worked there part time. I’d also decided to call my best friend from high school. I call him my best friend but the reality is that it felt like he was the only friend I had left in high school. He’d pretty much abandoned me (or so I thought) about a year before all this happened. Abandoned seems like a pretty strong word, but it’s a feeling I’d had a lot in my lengthy eighteen years on this earth. Something had happened between us he simply didn’t know how to deal with at age 17, so he walked away. I know that now but, at the time, it simply felt like there was no one left. I blamed him for leaving me alone, but then I blamed all my troubles on others.
The high school buddy was off at college by this time. I have no idea now how I figured out how to find him. He told me recently that I’d called his dorm and the student working the front desk climbed the three flights of stairs to tell him he had a long-distance phone call. It was quite late already. He said I was really out of it, sounded drugged – which, of course, I was. After a few words, I said, “I told you a long time ago that I would let you know when I decided to leave here.” He asked where I was going and I replied, “Anywhere but this life.” It was then he realized what was going on. As I recall, the original conversation about going away referred to running away from home – another frequent pastime growing up alongside plotting my own death. He asked what I’d done and I told him about the pills. He asked me to go to the hospital and I refused to even consider it. I swore him to secrecy and ended the conversation. I was just so tired and the only thing I wanted was sleep – and a little peace.
I finally headed home. In the meantime, my friend tells me he said a prayer for me, then called his parents to get my mother’s phone number. He said he thinks his mother alerted the Baptist church prayer chain. Great, just what I needed – the word out about that crazy Ben while the whole thing was still going on. Next, he called my mother to tell her what I’d done. When I arrived home, I found the lights on and my mother and sister up. It had to be after midnight by then, so I immediately knew the jig was up. My mother was waiting for me so she could take me to the hospital. I flatly refused. I told her I was very sleepy – all I wanted was to go to bed. She simply was not going to take that for an answer. Well, of course she wasn’t. She threatened to bring in the police so I told her I’d go to the hospital but only if I could drive myself. She made me promise I’d go straight to the hospital and I agreed.
Had you guessed already that I really had no intention of going to the hospital? Well, I didn’t. Instead, I drove around for a while, finally ending up a friend’s house. I woke him up and his father got up as well. I probably told them at least part of what had happened and now they both insisted on taking me to the hospital. I still didn’t agree to that until I finally saw myself in a mirror. I looked like I’d already died. I suppose that scared me and I finally agreed to be driven to the hospital. As I was walking up to the door of the emergency room, the nurse was astonished to learn who I was and that I was arriving under my own steam. Seems my mother had called the police to be on the lookout for me and had also alerted the hospital. It was three in the morning and had now been at least four hours since I’d taken the pills.
I remember some of having my stomach pumped. Take my word for it, you really don’t want to have that done unless it’s completely necessary. A tube was fed down through my nose into my stomach. I thought I’d been awake and aware for the whole procedure but was told later I did quite a bit of talking I couldn’t remember. The one thing I remember particularly well was hearing the doctor say, “I see we had fried chicken for dinner tonight.” Pleasant thought, eh? However, that greasy fried chicken from hours earlier was a part of what saved me that night. The grease slowed the absorption of the Dilantin. I was told years later that the doctor told my family I had a 50-50 chance of making it through the night.
All I knew at the time, though, was that I was pretty sick. The world was spinning and just wouldn’t seem to stop. I wondered why the nurses had just left me in the hall. I couldn’t sit up, so all I could see out of the corner of my eyes were rows of windows to my left and to my right. I later found out I was in intensive care and the windows were to allow the nurses to monitor the other rooms. It’s an awful feeling to realize you have no control over your body. What was even worse, however, was the look on my father’s face when he arrived from out of town to see me. My father had a look on his face like a hurt puppy dog. I’d disappointed him once again. Well, I suppose I’d disappointed everyone by this time.
I don’t recall now how long I spent in the hospital. My friend says, though, that he came to visit me the following week. He’d driven several hours to get there. He said we visited for about twenty minutes and the entire conversation was completely superficial. He said he felt as he left that he’d spent the time with a complete stranger. And he had. This event sealed my fate. The boy he’ known wasn’t to reappear for another thirty-eight years.
I went back to stay with my father after being released. I was sad, frightened, sicker than ever. You see, wanting to die simply said I was unable to see any other solution that didn’t just involve more pain and there had already been enough. I think it was my father who suggested that I check myself into the state hospital. I was eighteen, after all, and legally an adult, so he couldn’t force me. I think he partly wanted to get me out of the way for a while so the news could die down a little in that small town. I agreed to check myself in because I was afraid now of everything I did – afraid to be alone.
Two things happened during my stay in that institution. One, I knew there was no way I could stay there. I refused to allow anyone to help me. After all, I was only there to hide from, well, life. The second thing was far more profound and its effects would have far-reaching consequences. What I saw there frightened me probably more than I’d ever been frightened. If this was how to get help, you could count me out. But I also saw people who had no control over their problems. The final straw came when a girl there went into an epileptic fit in the hall while I happened to be standing there. The nurses tried everything they could to keep her from hurting herself. They finally managed to get her on a gurney and strap her down. I knew it was time to get out of Dodge. My suicide attempt had been about me running from my own reality. Now, it was time to run from a reality I didn’t want to know existed. What I took away from this experience would prevent me from asking for help in any sincere way for the next thirty-two or so years. How could I even consider that I had problems when these people were doomed to a life in the control of others, helpless to help themselves? I was overcome with guilt over being so selfish. I was left with what I’d been taught – pull yourself up by your own bootstraps and carry on.
At that time, a voluntary commitment to the state hospital meant I could check myself out after ten days. I checked myself out promptly on the tenth day. My father had to drive 30 miles in snow to come get me. The trip back was terrifying. It was almost impossible to see where the road ended and the fields began.
After this episode, the old Ben was gone completely. I’d been disappearing for a long time and now the transformation seemed complete. In his place was a frightened, walled-in boy who thought he was a man. I had no idea what to do next. I would spend years clinging to people desperately in an effort for them to make me okay. I never allowed anyone too close, though, because that was just going to get me hurt again. I knew I wasn’t okay, but I needed to appear okay. It became very much about what it looked like rather than what it was. For that, I needed people to prop me up, though I resented them for knowing how to live life. It was a recipe for a miserable life.
I think what I want to say is that it didn’t have to be that way. I don’t recall having anyone there to simply say they understood that the pain was just too great to want to stick around – that I was acceptable no matter what. But it was a catch-22 situation. I also didn’t know how to tell anyone why there was pain or just how much pain there was. I no longer trusted anyone to like me (much less love me) just for who I was. After all, I no longer knew who I was. What I remember of reactions to my suicide attempt were pity, indignation, fear, even moral disgust. The suggestions were mostly that I was just going to have to figure out what I wanted – just stop straddling the fence. I was pretty sure I’d already shown them what I really wanted, but I’d failed at that. Do I advocate suicide? Absolutely not. Do I understand suicide? Yes, I believe I do. Could anyone have prevented my attempt? Maybe, maybe not. I believe most suicides aren’t about causing others harm, though that may be one of the results. Anger at the person attempting to end their life is of less than no use whatsoever and more than likely will simply build yet another wall between you and the person who just wants for the pain to go away. I don’t think anyone could have handed me a solution. What I really needed was acceptance. What I demanded after that was understanding. I couldn’t know at the time that I was asking the impossible. Still my anger at the world grew.
Many years later, I finally started the process of asking for help. I say process because I had no idea how to do it and I still felt that, if you knew who I really was, you’d walk away. No doubt in my mind about that despite the fact there were people right there with me for all those years. Absolute knowing is a horrible thing, it prevents you from being able to accept anything new. I had become so locked down that no amount of evidence to the contrary was going to allow me to believe I wasn’t the person I told myself I was.
At age 56, it finally came to the end of the road for this particular Ben. This one had no options left – hadn’t really for a long time. All the old solutions had stopped working, no matter how hard I repeated them. Some small part of me finally admitted that, just perhaps, asking for help might be okay. But, when you’ve become your own entire means of protection, even the act of asking for help threatens to sink the whole thing. No matter how bad my life seemed, it was still the only one I knew.
Little by little, I got the help I needed. Little by little, I let go of a lifetime of fear. When I finally was able to get to a place where I was willing to peek out a little from behind the walls I’d built, I found people there who had been waiting to see me for years. Some had been waiting most all of my life, others for only a short time. I even allowed myself to remember a little boy who wanted to do good things but had lost his way. The biggest lesson I had to learn was honesty. It wasn’t just that I had to be honest with the people trying to help me, it was far more important that I allow myself to be honest with me. I could no longer play both sides of the game – presenting what had become a more and more difficult façade of self-confidence while running myself into the ground as the worthless piece of trash I felt I was most of the time. I’d tried therapy many times in the past, but nothing helped much since I could not bring myself to be honest with the person trying to help. Even there, it was about how I appeared to another rather than what was really going on.
Could I have broken free sooner? I don’t know. Perhaps it took every bit of pain I’d carried with me all those years in order to finally be willing to even try to be okay in my own skin. God knew all these things about me, right? I couldn’t hide it all from God, right? Oh, come now, don’t tell me you haven’t lied to God more than once, as though it was possible. No, I needed something more in order to break out of my own head.
Those thoughts of suicide? They’re still there. They show up now and again, usually at unexpected times. The difference today, however, is that I can recognize their presence, wish them well, and send them on their way. All these things are a part of who I am. Denying them cost me dearly. Sharing the worst I could tell about myself to just one other human who didn’t run screaming out the room, made the difference. Having that one person refuse to allow me to continue to tell him how bad I was made the difference. That person was placed in my path for a reason. I think that’s when I began to realize what I’d missed most in my life was a sense of community. Self-reliance is a trap and a lie. As long as I believed it was all up to me since I couldn’t count on anyone else, I was doomed to continue to repeat the same things that hurt me and allowed me to hurt others.
It’s amazing what can happen in your life when you allow even the smallest glimmer of light in. For me, that light was my recognition that I am a child of God, not a disappointment. I may do disappointing things, but that doesn’t make me a disappointment in God’s eyes. Taking an honest look at myself, finally, revealed to me a loving person who had done hurtful things. I can’t step back and change those things. I can, however, do something different today. I discovered to my surprise that I no longer asked every night for the God I thought I’d left behind to let me die. Today, my question is a hopeful, “what’s next?” I have no way of knowing how much time I have left. I choose today, however, to live that life as one who is loved and who is capable of loving. And when I forget momentarily, I know I am surrounded by a host of friends who will remind me.
Oh, and that friend who helped by his actions to convince me not to die that night? I count him as one of my closest and dearest friends after over forty years despite the fact that we rarely spoke again for another thirty-four years. You see, I believe God is in the redeeming business. Anything, absolutely anything, can be redeemed through the love of God. That, finally, is how it’s worked for me. It simply remains for us to accept that love and we become more able to recognize the love right around us.