Sept. 8-14 is National Suicide Prevention Week. Many of us have known this painful loss. One of the hardest lessons is that sometimes you have to violate the rules of ordinary friendship to keep people safe. All names but mine have been changed to protect the privacy of others.
Katie didn’t have friends: she had best friends, more than anyone I knew. And the proof spilled out of her closet – a rainbow of satin that ruffled and ruched and flounced and flowed from the 14 dresses she’d worn as bridesmaid in 14 different weddings.
At Katie’s church, they considered her gifted with that special insight that comes only from God. She had a way of knowing things that no one could know. Part of what drew her to that particular congregation was meeting one of the men there, whom she’d already met in a dream when she still lived halfway across the country. In the dream, she wasn’t a bridesmaid. She was his bride.
Katie had answered our ad for a roommate. She seemed lively and fun, five feet of bouncing energy whose blonde curls were as abundant as her smiles and – well, to be honest, her hips and breasts and all the rest of her. Katie was frequently on a diet and just as often, our friend Craig would report, with some puzzlement: “I saw Katie at the bus stop on my way to work today. She was eating an ice cream sandwich at 7:30 in the morning.”
Well. That was Katie. And besides, what’s the big difference between an ice cream sandwich and a Boston cream-filled donut? One’s just colder.
My roommate Deb and I went through some tough times with Katie. A friend who worked at a nearby psych hospital had tried to warn us against choosing her as a roomie, without, of course, violating any principle of patient confidentiality ever written or imagined.
“Are you sure you want Katie to move in?” Alison would ask, over and over. “Are you sure?
Why not? we thought. She was fun. She was cheerful. She was as committed to her church as we were to ours. The fact that her career had taken a bit of a bump – she’d worked as a TV producer in another state and was now a university administrator – we chalked up to youth, indecision, even focusing on what mattered most. We did know she’d had a stint in a psych hospital. That didn’t make her unique among the people we knew. So spending a bit of time in a “recovery” job closer to her family was perfectly reasonable.
But, it turned out, family was anything but the draw. I came home to our apartment after my own Thanksgiving dinner that year to find Katie standing by the kitchen table, shaking within her brother’s arms.
“Why would you say those things to Mom and Dad?” he was pleading. “You know that never happened. It would never happen.”
“It did happen!” Katie returned tearfully. “And they need to face up to it. We all need to face up to it. Mom and Dad abused me in Satanic rituals for years!”
“Shhh, shhh…” He leaned his brown beard into her curls and wrapped his arms around her – she still in her navy blue pea coat, he still in his thick gray zipper sweater – as if by encasing her he could melt the icy imaginings from her heart.
I tiptoed to my bedroom and pulled the door quietly shut. I heard some more angry, tearful shouts and some more frustrated baritone before eventually the heavy front door clicked shut.
Still, Deb and I thought, love and prayer could provide the care Katie needed. As they say in NAMI, “You can’t know what no one has taught you.” Nor can you know what no one has told you. So while we knew that Katie had challenges, we had no idea how seriously ill she might be.
Our understanding began to emerge the day she erupted in a gusher of fear and paranoia. Early one weekday afternoon, as I sat at my 12th floor desk in an urban office tower, pushing through the daily deluge of proposal and prequalification documents for the start-up consulting firm where I worked, the phone rang. It was Katie.
“I need a ride home,” she said. “Can you pick me up at work?”
“Sure,” I said, still keying notes into a draft prequal. “What time are you getting off?”
“No,” she said. “I need a ride now.”
She couldn’t talk then, she said. She would explain when she saw me.
So I told my boss I had a family emergency and drove the mile and a half to the university where Katie worked. She was waiting in front of the granite gothic arches of the building where her office was located, huddled against a parking meter, almost collapsed into herself. When I pulled up, she opened the passenger door of my Corolla, crammed herself into the seat, then, as she pulled the door shut, began examining me minutely, her eyes flickering up and down and across me and every surface in the car.
“Katie, what’s the matter?”
“Are you a Christian?” she asked abruptly.
I was taken aback for a moment. Our shared faith was the basis of our shared household. Something very strange was happening.
“Katie, you know I’m a Christian. I used to edit a Christian newspaper. I was in a Bible study with Pete and Carol from your church years before they ever got married. What’s going on?”
“Not everyone is as they seem.”
“Okay. So what’s happening?”
“My boss is a Satanist.”
Hmmph. That was a stretch for me. If she’d said the president of her university was a Satanist, I might have believed it. He was not a nice man. But the dean of the school of theology where she worked … Nah.
Over the rest of the ride and the next several hours, countless paranoid delusions poured out of her. Today, I can’t remember a word of it, beyond that startling beginning. My roommate Deb and I didn’t really know what to do. So we sat beside Katie as she froze rigid on my twin bed, her eyes tracking us in terror as we prayed. Deb prayed for me and I prayed for Katie. Every time a delusion popped up, I would give whatever instruction or information or reminder of her own faith seemed to be coming from God. And through it all, it was as if I saw Gulliver’s bonds popping, one by one. These were no great powers that held her; just a great many small ones. And she could be released.
After two solid hours of delusion and prayer, Katie’s face and body relaxed. It was over. We cooked supper for her and ate at the kitchen table.
I wish that was the end of Katie’s story. But a year later, the young man from her dream, the dream that had drawn her to her church, married someone else. Six months later, I married and moved out of state. And a few months after that, I got a couple of calls from friends who were concerned about her.
At that particular moment in my life, I was trying to coordinate a new project team’s first presentation to the president and two other members of the executive committee of the company where I had a new job. A hurricane was bearing down on our area. I didn’t call.
Instead, a few days later, I got a call at 1:30 in the morning – seven and a half hours before that oh-so-important presentation. I stubbed my toe on a coffee table trying to reach the one phone that was still working without electrical power. We’d been in the dark for six days since the hurricane had torn through our area, snapping sixty-foot trees as if they were pencils and dumping their bulk across utility lines with ferocious thoroughness.
I finally put my hand on the receiver and silenced the insistent beep.
It was Elaine, Katie’s dieting accountability partner and one of my own best friends.
“Carlene, they found Katie dead tonight in New York City. She hung herself in the ladies room of a restaurant. The police finally reached Deb around midnight.”
So much confusion, so much uncertainty. New York? What was she doing in New York? She’d gone to work that morning as usual, saying she felt fine, after a three-day holiday weekend when she’d been entirely delusional and entirely insistent that she would not see a doctor and that her parents could not be called.
The bus ticket in her pocket was one-way to Greensboro, North Carolina. Elaine and Deb would both ask over the next weeks and months: Did I think she was trying to get to my new home? For years, I had to wonder. Only recently did I remember that she had been a follower of a healer whose church was, at the time, in Greensboro. Perhaps she was making a last-ditch attempt to get prayer that she thought would be effective.
But her inner demons stopped her during the New York layover. She had dinner – a particularly nice one, I understand; certainly not one her diet would have allowed – then died in the restaurant’s ladies room. It was a place where she would be found by strangers. She gave that consideration in death to those she loved. None of us had to find her.
It has been a little more than 14 years since Katie died and I am crying – no, weeping and sobbing – for her for the first time. During those 14 years, my husband and I have been on suicide watch four times with relatives who are mentally ill, and supported more families than I can count whose loved ones have attempted to take their lives. We know more than any human being ought to know about how to fail in a suicide attempt and the physical and emotional devastation that a failed attempt leaves on the person who has made the effort.
There has been no time to let myself know the devastation that Katie’s death has meant in my life. No time until now.
Katie, you didn’t have to die.
How I wish we’d known how to help you live.
I would have done anything to put you in a safe place – anything, it turns out, except violate the rules of ordinary human friendship. Having given my word not to call your parents, not to call your doctor, I wouldn’t break my promise. I hadn’t learned the complex skills of negotiating with a brain that was, at the moment, not operating in its own best interests.
You were a smart, fun, funny young woman who just happened to be crazy. Crazy enough to forbid us to call your parents, who would have had the authority to commit you. Crazy enough to refuse medical treatment, which could have saved your life even if it might have altered your personality.
I don’t miss the craziness – the part of Katie that could never remember which bath towels were hers; that always managed to crack at least one plate when she was washing the dishes; that would come to me in secret with important questions like: “After church today, I was praying at the front, and then all of a sudden I was at the back of the church, and I don’t remember getting there. What do you think happened?”
But I do miss Katie. And she didn’t have to die.
I’m sorry we didn’t know how to help you. And I’m sorry for all you suffered. We still love you, Katie.