***Trigger Warnings: suicide, mental illness***
It has taken me awhile to write this post. I apologize for the length. It involves a long journey into my past and it was hard to get my feelings in order. I will have to share some more of my story with you for you to understand.
It has taken me a long time, but I have wrestled most of my demons into a fairly peaceful place. They are always with me, sitting off in the corner as I go about my daily business. But we have reached a tenuous truce. They can sit on the couch with me watching the TV, but I control the remote. Every so often, however, they lash out unexpectedly and change the station. We begin the battle all over again.
This is what happened last week after, of all things, a professional development event. It was a conference about “mental health first aid”. How educators and other school professionals can recognize students in crisis, stabilize the situation, and get the students the help they need.
There was a series of video clips from a man who was diagnosed with bipolar disorder as a teen. He eventually attempted suicide, survived, and now speaks publicly about suicide prevention. It was a very powerful video. Very descriptive of his symptoms.
As I watched the video, the symptoms began to sound very familiar. When I was in high school, I had a boyfriend for several years. He was the life of the party. Kind, boisterous, full of life. Funny, outgoing, larger than life. There was not a person in my school who did not know this young man. I loved him deeply. He came into my life after my rape and he did a great deal to make me feel good about myself again.
He was also an alcoholic. All of the wonderful qualities were coupled with insecurity, depression, wild binges. He disappeared for days at a time and I received phone calls from the police to pick him up. At those times, he could be belligerent, angry, wild. He never lashed out at me. I was a calming influence.
The more I watched this video, the more I was taken back to this man. We’ll call him Seth. The symptoms the speaker described fit him. With all my mental health training, I was baffled that I had not seen this sooner. It is entirely possible that Seth was bipolar and it was never diagnosed.
Then the speaker moved on to talk about his suicide attempt. The thought processes, the reasons behind it, the feelings that nothing could take away the pain. Again, I was taken back to a horrible night. Seth called me, very very drunk, at midnight. He was alone in his house. He was talking in circles and not making sense. But the words he spoke were worrisome. I drove frantically to his house and found him sitting in his living room. A half-empty bottle of gin in one hand. A gun in the other. I was the one who had to talk the gun out of his hand. I brought him home with me and again was the one to calm him and give him comfort.
This story ends badly. We eventually broke up. I couldn’t bear to watch him slowly drink himself to death. I hoped it would be a temporary thing and that he would get help. The breakup was an ultimatum, a desperate plea for him to go to rehab and get the drinking under control. At 17, I knew nothing of bipolar disorder or mental illness. Or alcoholism for that matter. I thought I could somehow save him.
We stayed in contact. He tried AA, but it didn’t stick. A few months later, he drove into a tree and was killed instantly. He was 20 years old. This was heartbreaking and left me full of guilt. I am positive that he had been drinking, although the friend in the car with him promised he was not. Seth’s history, and the bottles found in the car told another story. At 17, no one could persuade me that this was not somehow my fault. If only I had stayed with him, he might have been driving a different road that day. He might have been sober. I know it’s not rational, but that guilt has stayed with me all these years.
The guilt and sorrow came rushing back as I sat there with my principal and coworkers, trying desperately not to cry in front of them. Then the anger took over. The whole point of this workshop was that we, as educators, had the responsibility to identify these students in crisis. To help them and point them to professionals that could deal with their mental health issues.
As I sat there, I could not help but wonder where those people were for Seth? Where were his parents, his teachers, his counselors? Every teacher knew and liked Seth. Every adult in his life knew his story and had seen his behaviors. Why was it that a 17 year old girl had to be the one to try to save him? Why was I the only one to see the depths of his despair, when I had no idea what to do about it? Why did I have the gun in my hand at the end of that night? It seems it could have all been prevented.
My husband correctly says that I am seeing the problem with 17 year old eyes. I cannot be sure that no teacher or counselor ever intervened. I do not know what lengths his parents went through before giving up and throwing him out of their house to fend for himself.
All I know is that I am angry. And it hurts.