The very next day, Cheryl was back at the ED, suicidal, as she had been every day last week, taking Christmas off.
“Nobody called,” she wept. “I spent Christmas alone.”
“I called you on Christmas. You were happy. You were listening to the radio.”
“That was all just a mask,” she said.
Patients always say the positive emotions are fake and the negative ones are authentic. Those of us who take care of them often suspect the opposite is true. Oh, she just wants attention, we say when someone is upset, as if attention were a bad thing to want and as if wanting it disqualified them from claiming it. We suspected this of Cheryl, who daily threatened suicide, but never did anything about it.
I asked her to tell me a story about how it all started. This is what she said:
“The first time I knew I was pretty, I was five years old.
“I was standing outside our house in a red sundress with a little white pattern. It was summer and my big brother and his friends were riding their bikes down the driveway. I wondered if they thought I was pretty. One of my little, straps fell down my shoulder and I wondered if they noticed. I don’t know how I knew I was pretty. My parents weren’t that demonstrative. My mother never gushed over me and my father was always too busy. He wasn’t a workaholic; it’s just that whenever I saw him, he was always doing something: fixing something on the house, going to work, watching sports, or something. No one in my family paid much attention to me. That’s how come it’s a mystery that I knew that I was pretty.”
“Once I got to high school, there was no doubt about it. I was pretty, and all the boys let me know it. One day when we were coming back from a visit to cousins my Mom stopped at an ice cream shop to buy us a treat. Mikey walked up to the car. He was new in town and a senior and had beautifully kept long red hair down to the middle of his back. My throat squeezed shut and I held my breath when he came up, but it wasn’t me that he was approaching. He politely asked my mother if he could take me on a date. My mother took a long time thinking, but said that her daughter would not be dating someone with hair longer than hers. I could have died right there, but of course I didn’t.
“A couple weeks later there was a knock at my door and there was Mickey, his glorious locks cut to just below his ears, still fashionably long, but shorter than mine. He asked her if he was now acceptable. She was so impressed she couldn’t say no. Well, now I wish he had never cut it. In spite of his politeness, Mickey introduced me to a variety of highs, from pot to speed and more. We did a lot of drugs, me and Mickey, but none of them hooked me as hard as the one drug he introduced me to: sex.
“The first time was perfect; great lighting, mood music, a real bed, and protection. His parents had gone off and we had the house to ourselves. He was patient and explained everything, what all that blood was, how his penis got stiff, and what was supposed to rub on what. It’s embarrassing now to think of how ignorant I was about my own body. Our relationship carried on for just a few more weeks, but he had started a fever in me and that’s been the start of my troubles….”
Someone once said that when we heard a person tell us his or her life story, it is as if we are actually looking over his or her shoulder at a cultural text from which he or she if reading. In Cheryl’s case, she was reading a recovery story, thick in the part where her addictions were just beginning to get unmanageable. I knew that, if she went on, she would get to where she realized she believed in a power greater than herself. Then we were home free, she would no longer need to think about suicide and could go home.
Cheryl had a belief in confession. Even though she was no Catholic and probably not much of a Christian, confession was in her bones. I was no priest, but I would do in a pinch. She had a belief, even though she didn’t know it, that if she could bring about an awakening of power and insight preceded by a morbid period of introspection and guilt, then she would be saved. But first she had to come to the end of her rope as expressed by her threats of suicide.
Suicide for her was a form of self surrender. She didn’t really want to die; she had to put to death her old self before a new one could take its place. Her suicidality was saying that her old manner of living was intolerable.
The problem was that Cheryl still was pretty. The stirring of my loins was testimony to that. She was looking for a way of connecting that was not about being a sexual object. For now, being a suicidal patient was all she could figure out. All she could do was surrender and hope that someone could come along and show her another way to go.
I would do that if I knew how. For now, the best I can manage is to arrange an armistice, rather than require her to commit hari-kari.
Related article: Experimental Theology- Repentance as Suicide