“You’re going to be my wife, Tiffany. I have social security, a house, you can drive my car. I don’t want to pressure you into anything you don’t want to do. I mean, I don’t have any problem finding my own mate. Well, I do. But I don’t do no prenups or anything. You can have your friends over anytime you want and I’ll buy you anything.”
This wasn’t necessarily the most unusual statement to hear directed at Tiffany. However, this might have been the most direct. She was a blonde, curly haired, recovering alcoholic and former Minnesota Roller Girl, stuck in psychiatric care for relapsing and throwing a rollerskate at a police officer. Nearly every man in our unit was madly in love with her. I didn’t blame them. She was a sweetheart to everyone who approached her.
I’m not entirely certain who first struck up a conversation with who. Maybe one of us asked the other if we could join them for lunch or noticed the other working on their creative outlet and was intrigued. Either way, by my third day in there we had figured out that we were the most level headed individuals in B2 and quickly formed a much needed friendship to the point where our social worker and psychiatrists noticed our bond and made sure that our release dates coincided as close as possible. Thankfully we are still a part of each other’s lives to this day.
In the mornings, if the psychiatrists had decided that we were stable enough, we were allowed a 30 minute pass to walk around outside. Tiffany and I would go to the dirty convenience store around the corner from the hospital and buy cigarettes. We would rarely say anything to each other at that time in the day, just sit on the park bench across the street from the hospital, chain smoke, and drink coffee. The nurses turned a blind eye to us in particular when we would come in reeking of tobacco and subtly trying to hide packs of cigarettes in our lockers. Smoking was not allowed for psychiatric patients. No one else got away with breaking a rule at this level. Throughout the rest of the day, unless sleep or other obligations arose, we would stick by each others sides like a child holds onto a blanket. She would draw as I would write and we would hash out stories late into the night, play games with the other patients, and somehow make everyone else in the unit a little happier. The nurses let us know on my last night there that this had been the least stressful few weeks they had ever experienced. They attributed it to us. Her presence was a fresh breath of normalcy in an otherwise chaotic situation. If there was any reason I was able to make it through being locked away it was because of her.
For the first few days of my stay, the number of visitors and phone calls I received was far higher than average. The nurses and doctors would use that as a motivational tool in an attempt to push me away from suicidal ideation. I was loved. And everyone wanted me to know that. But with every visit, every phone call, every time I had to retell the story of that night that led me behind these walls, I felt more and more overwhelmed. Every time someone would sit across from me and say “I can’t lose you” I just wanted to scream at them that if I cared about their feelings I wouldn’t be in there in the first place. It was as though that I needed to accept some form of validation in order to comfort everyone in my life. It was not that I believed the world would be a better place without me. I did not believe that I was a bad person and no one cared. I knew all of these things to be true. But I did not care. All that I wanted was to stop feeling miserable and disappear.
For whatever reason, I had to be the one to comfort my friends and family and remain strong even though the only thing holding me together was that, at the time, I was on constant suicide watch. Every 15 minutes to half hour a nurse would find me and ask if I was still having thoughts about hurting myself. With my sleep schedule, that would be anywhere between 30 and 60 borderline therapy sessions a day. And that’s excluding meeting with my psychiatrist. I was exhausted enough and didn’t know how to tell people to just leave me alone. I couldn’t help them process what had happened when I could barely keep it together enough to fall asleep at night.
In a conversation with Kurt Vonnegut, recorded and published as the book “Like Shaking Hands With God”, Ray Stringer, author of Grand Central Winter, said “Saving myself is going to be a lifetime job, so I don’t know if I can really get to the point where I have the time or the wherewithal to save the next guy.”
I don’t believe that I can ease the emotional and mental suffering of another person. Nor do I feel that anyone can do the same for myself. All that I can do is take responsibility for my own life rather than carry another’s burden. Tiffany and I didn’t bother to try and save each other. I couldn’t ferry her through troubled waters and she couldn’t do the same for me. I didn’t know how to help her stay sober and she couldn’t possibly have known how to keep my suicidal tendencies at bay. Those tasks are not jobs that either of us were qualified for. Although we both had stumbled along the way, we made it through that particular stage of our journeys because we both chose to remain a faithful presence.