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I Wasn’t Enough…

Hubble Telescope

Hubble Telescope

I wasn’t enough.

When she came for her first counseling session, everything about her screamed a hard life. You could see it in her slumped shoulders, how she shuffled her feet, the weary sigh when she collapsed in the chair, the emptiness in her eyes. Her deeply lined face with its weathered features belied her chronological age of 37. If that wasn’t enough, it was confirmed in the ankle bracelet that peeked out from the ragged cuff of her jeans.

“Tell me why you’re here today.”
“My parole officer sent me.”

“How can I help you?”
“I don’t know if you can.”

She was under house arrest, her license had been suspended, and she’d been through this before.

That’s how our therapeutic relationship started. Trust was going to be difficult. I asked for her patience while I got through an initial history, since she hadn’t been through this before with me. Polite but distant, she waited for whatever was to come. She’d get through it; she’d been through a lot worse.

Family history is important; we are the sum of our experiences. A therapeutic tool known as a genogram is something I perform with every client/patient – it is a family tree that shows marriages, divorces, step-children, siblings, relationships, suicides, substance abuse, imprisonment, mental illness – all important ways to know where the person is coming from, in order to determine where they need to go, and how to get there.

Hers was a very common story for the general population our county mental health clinic served – never knew her father, had an alcoholic mother and several half-siblings, had been sexually abused by an uncle and physically abused by a stepfather, dropped out of high school, had her own child when she was 15, battled alcohol and prescription drugs off and on for the past 20 + years, and was married to an alcoholic. She had several arrests for DUI and shoplifting. Her teen-aged daughter was pregnant and living with an abusive boyfriend.

Oh – and she always wanted to be an artist.

She was depressed. No surprise there. Whether she got depressed when her life fell apart, or her life fell apart causing her depression…her use of alcohol and other drugs only complicated matters. It’s hard to know which came first, but depression and addiction go hand in hand far too often. And they were tough to beat…

Textbook – depressed mood, hopeless, helpless, emotional withdrawal, difficulty falling asleep, but sleeping excessively, weight gain, trouble concentrating, not interested in any social activities. The fact that she had been clean and sober for almost a month was wonderful, but terrible at the same time – these feelings were raw and painful; unwanted and unfamiliar; after all, for most of her life, her feelings had been numb from the drugs.

“I’d like to make a deal with you,” I said to the eyes that grew more wary. “How about if I hold onto your hope until you find it again yourself?”

“Okay,” came out softly, along with a slight sense that perhaps I was the one who needed help, rather than her.

Her parole officer wanted her to talk with someone about how to deal with her husband, who wouldn’t stop drinking with his buddies at their house several nights a week. It was too much of a temptation for her; she craved the alcohol even though her husband put a combination lock on their keg; she desperately wanted the Oxycontins and Vicodins and Percosets that her daughter offered her, but still found the strength to refuse. But she was losing ground…

Where to even start? Here, it was one day at a time, one hour at a time. By the end of the fourth session, she had managed to get her husband’s beer nights moved out to the garage, along with the keg, and to tell her daughter to not bring any of the meds when she came to visit. They were giving her some grief about it, but she stood firm.

Baby steps? No. In actuality, they were huge. She took control of those two things in her environment, and her sense of empowerment brought a smile to her face and a slight squaring of her shoulders.

“I’m so proud of you!!!”

She covered her face with her hands, sobbing. “No one ever said that to me before.”

“Well, they should have. You are a strong, courageous woman; a survivor. Right now, as is, you are enough…”

Her blue eyes, glistening with tears but clearer without the effects of the drugs, met my gaze with something different, something lost that was slowing being found.

With hope.

For an instant, I saw the beautiful young girl she would have been had all of the terrible things not dragged her down and worn her out and bruised her soul. Innocent, expectant, full of hope for the future. It was staggering. It was humbling.

Sacred ground. She felt it too.

Palette of Memories Josephine Wall

Palette of Memories
Josephine Wall

She missed her next appointment, but when I called to reschedule, I could tell she was excited about something. She had just gotten off the phone with her parole officer; he arranged an interview for her at a local family run convenience store that took part in a county program for ex-offenders. It was part-time, but a start. Plus, it was in walking distance from her house. The interview was next week.

Hope. There it was again, tinged with a girlish excitement.

We spoke briefly about what she might expect from the interview, and what she planned to wear. I congratulated her again, wished her luck, and assured her she would be fine. She signed off with a breathy, “See you next week.”

And that was the last time I ever heard her voice.

When I came in to work on Monday, my supervisor showed me her obituary in the local newspaper. Dead, at 37 years old.

Why? What happened? I was in shock as I relayed our last conversation in full.

I called her husband, looking to offer my condolences, and hopefully, for some answers.

They had some friends over for a party to celebrate her job interview. She cooked lots of food and seemed happy and excited. He remembered drinking too much and falling asleep on the couch. His daughter woke him up and asked if he’d seen her mother; she was nowhere in the house, and the keys to the truck were gone. At first, he didn’t understand.

When they found her, she was already dead. By her own hand.

A. Successful. Suicide.

I couldn’t speak.

He mentioned how much his wife had liked coming to her appointments at the counseling center, and that she seemed to be doing better.

I asked him if I could help in any way; he said no, but thanked me for calling, and for helping her.

I hung up. Helping Her? Hardly.

Suicide meant that at that moment, for a reason that we would probably neither know nor understand, she had been in such emotional pain that she just wanted to stop hurting; she just needed to escape. She hadn’t been thinking clearly enough to realize that the feelings of hopelessness and helplessness would pass; that they were only temporary; that she would get through it and survive, just as she always had.

Survive and thrive. Clean and sober. Perhaps at a new job. Or so we had hoped… Or so I had hoped…

The tenents of good practice dictate that involved staff and supervisors hold a “psychological autopsy” for any patients who suicide. We sat around a conference table on speaker phone with administration at our other office. I presented her history, from start to finish, along with treatment plan, progress, appointment schedule, recommendations, contact with her parole officer and family, patient compliance. Every detail.

Why? What happened? What could we have done differently?

Nothing. But she committed suicide. Everything? No, I knew that wasn’t true. Delayed it, perhaps. But change takes time, and there hadn’t been enough of it…

After about 25 minutes of this, I started to cry. In front of 2 supervisors, and over the speaker phone “in front of” the CEO of the county mental health offices and two attending psychiatrists.

“She has a name; she’s not just a case.” I struggled on. “And for just a brief time in her 37 years, she felt good about herself. It wasn’t long, and it obviously wasn’t enough, but it was something.” Silence in two rooms filled with people. “And she was important…”

I couldn’t sit there with it being so impersonal. We health care professionals do that so often by necessity; we need to retain distance and objectivity in order to do our job well. It’s not about us, but rather always about the patient.

But I had to remind them, and myself, that she lived and loved and hoped and dreamed and fought as long and as hard as possible. And I admired her for that. And I loved her for that. And I would remember her for that.

Be well, lovely lady. You touched my heart. I know that you are free of any of the torment that weighed so heavily upon you, and that your eyes and thoughts are clear. And that you have hope again…

Paint with bright colors, with abandon, with your heart…and paint outside the lines, without limits or restraint.

My time with you was too short, but it was my privilege.

And remember – right now, as is….you are, and always will be, enough.

Eternal rest, grant her, O Lord, and perpetual light shine upon her.
May the souls of the faithful departed through the mercy of God rest in peace. Amen.

spotonlists

spotonlists

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32 thoughts on “I Wasn’t Enough…

  1. This is a sad story.

    My son was 36 when he killed himself. He had been depressed, but, like your client, he seemed to be feeling better those last days before he shot himself. And it did appear to be on a moment’s decision.

    I know it often happens just like that; after a person makes up his mind he’s going to do it, and a plan is in pace, he relaxes and seems better. I knew this, and still, was taken by surprise. Fifteen years later, I still go over it in my mind.

    • I am so very, very sorry for your loss – the worst of all. People ask me when they’ll get ‘closure’ with a tragedy such as yours, and I tell them, as you already painfully know, that there is none; you simply survive. You learned the horrible truth that sometimes you cannot stop what has been put into place. It wasn’t that you weren’t enough to assuage your son’s pain – it’s that he couldn’t see that it would somehow get better. And those of us left behind replay it over and over, wondering what we missed or could have done differently. I wish I could ease your hurt, but I can’t. You and he are in my prayers. Thank you for taking the time to comment on something so very, very difficult for you.

  2. I was captivated by the way you handled your client and lovely lady. The artwork on the palette suits the story as does the peaceful dove. I think you helped her, just by caring. The inevitable was about her, not you. I have had two young people who knew my grown kids, one in high school and one out of school, both from professional families, commit suicide. One waited for a train by the high school, victim of bullying, the other used a bag and tape, over head, to have parents come home to find him, more due to his own feelings of not being accepted, but years of counseling. He was gay and even had tried to live in California, where he thought he would find love. (His parents were really loving, my daughter was in love with his brother and over daily, said all were so close… Inside is not always whole even when the outside, external factors indicate that all seems o.k. You know this. Great post and a lesson for all to care, less guilt and maybe the only one to care or listen…

    • Part of the stigma and shame of suicide can be lessened by talking about it, rather than sweeping it under the rug. Even mental health professionals are hesitant to discuss any clients they may have lost to suicide. And with so many deaths related either directly or indirectly with cyberbullying and adolescents – the dialogue needs to continue. Thank you, as always, for your support and comments.

  3. I loved you wanted her name to be known
    most the time its simply remembering a name an identity that matters most
    Beautiful post….
    Take Care…You Matter…
    )0(
    maryrose

  4. Oh dear Theresa you are so wonderful a soul, so compassionate, and so full of love dear, I bow to you for everything you are and I dont need to confirm that anymore dear, I simply bow to you because in every corner of this earth, I am sure souls are present who has the fire burning in them to light up other small candles like me.I would like to say dear you are indeed a blessing to me

    thank you very much dear for being so

      • Yes dear I pray for that soul and thank you very much for sharing that post and the other one about the dad and two daughter and the doctor and you that was wonderful dear

        thank you 🙂

  5. The poor woman was lost from day one, my heart goes out to the therapists who have to sit and let other people unload their lives onto them. A daily round of pain, misery, abuse and neglect. Then having to actually look back at their patient and see the face of the small child, hiding behind the dull eyes. The detritus of other people’s misfortune clings to you like smoke from the funeral pyre of their lives. Sad. A good read Theresa highlighting the pain of life and the care coming from therapists.
    Laurie.

    • Thank you for reading this, Elisabeth. I knew you would understand, even from so far away. I didn’t mean to upset you. I always keep her in my heart; suicide is so terrible a thing. Blessings to you…

      • I am always overwhelmed by so much suffering but may be the word was not good. (Distress?), Always my bad English. My father committed suicide, so I know what it is. Thank you for your love, you are also in my heart, be blessed

      • Your English is very good – no apologies, please. I am so very sorry about your father and keep you both in my prayers. Perhaps one day you and I will meet, and I can give you a hug for what you have been through. I care.

      • I use mostly the translator: D Thanks for your prayers, it touches me so much. I feel so close to you, my sister called Teresa and she lives in New York. Nothing that happens to us is a chance, our souls have chosen these experiences. I give you a big virtual hug, thank you for being there

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