Revelation. Resurrection. Reformation.


I picked up another hard, white capsule, rolled it around in shaking fingers, then put it in my mouth. A small swallow of warm, sweet orange juice mixed with heated, salty tears. One more pill down. There were 107 before I began.  

Hurry up. Don't think about it. Just swallow. 

One-hundred-seven tablets of the drug Desyrel, AKA Trazadone, were all that I had left of the order I had gotten filled as I left San Diego 3 weeks ago. I sat on my air mattress on the floor for maybe ten minutes, consuming them one by one. I wanted to know how many I was taking. I wanted to take them one at a time. I wanted to do this right.

Desyrel is sometimes used as an anti-depressant, my doctor prescribed it as a sleep aid. Not that I hadn't used anti-depressants before. In the past 12 or 13 years I'd tried Imipramine, Xanax (I was a zombie on this stuff), Welbutrin, Prozac (nope, I didn't get suicidal or homicidal—any more than I already was, that is), Zoloft, and several others I can't remember. "Better living through chemicals." Ha. There was something wrong with each one of them. I rarely consulted whatever physician I was seeing at the time as to what adjustment might be made in dosage. I just quit using. Then I'd try to 'snap out of it'. People who've never been depressed—clinically depressed—always say: "Just get busy!" "Take a walk!" "Quit dwelling on your problems!"

Yeah, like it's so easy to toss off that anvil on the chest. So simple to turn off the tears constantly lurking behind the eyes. Those people just jump out of bed in the morning. They've never felt lead in their veins and cotton in their head as you contemplate dragging yourself to the bathroom for a shower. I'd call my friend, Sandy.

"Guess what I did today?"

"What, sweetie?"

"I actually got up and took a shower!"

"Great! I'm proud of you!"

"Yeah, then I went back to bed."

There always seemed to be good reason to be depressed. After all, I came from a 'dysfunctional' family. I didn't meet my birth dad until I was 21. I was repeatedly estranged from my mother. I hadn't spoken to my sister in years. And my brother—well, he just didn't get it. My husband turned out to be a pervert and my religion didn't allow divorce under the unique circumstances of my marriage. My son was learning disabled and nobody could decide how to help him. And, he was encopretic. That means he shit his pants. Several times a day. For no apparent reason. All the psychiatrists said: "He's very angry." I was angry too. So here I was in an empty apartment in El Paso, Texas, downing every last sleeping pill I had.

I'd been divorced for a year. Since then, I'd floundered around in San Diego doing part-time office work and house-cleaning. I made great money working as a maid, but at the end of the day I was worn out. I'd have kept doing it in spite of the exhaustion, but the economy changed and people figured out that they could spend a couple hours on Saturday morning cleaning up after themselves. I lost most of my accounts and panicked.

Dear God, please give me guidance. Help me find a home for Shawn. Help me know what you want me to do. Don't you want us to be safe? What am I supposed to do?

On impulse I moved to Texas, where I had a couple close friends, Tom and Sara. We shared the same religion—we were Jehovah's Witnesses. We'd spent many hours in the door to door ministry together, and generally encouraged one another in the faith. We had a special bond, having come from abusive families who professed the same belief. Anyway, they'd painted a sunny picture of the place, telling me about how cheap food and rent was. They forgot to mention that there were no jobs. Or maybe I "forgot" to notice that they got by with Tom delivering pizza.

I had arrived in town with just enough cash to rent an apartment. I was able to get food stamps, but nothing else, since I was awarded child support of $327 a month. Never mind that the checks rarely came. I looked diligently for work the first three weeks. I'd never had trouble finding a job. There just weren't any here to find.

Hot Texas wind wailed relentlessly at my apartment window. Sixty-three pills were left now. I started taking them five or six at a time. I hadn't thought about listening to my Beatles albums one more time, or having one last Cherry Coke. What would I do if it was my final day on Earth? Go to the beach? Dine at a fabulous restaurant with friends? I just wanted to get this over with.

I'd written brief notes to Shawn and Sara.

"Dear Shawn— I love you, I'm sorry. Love, Mom"

"Dear Sara—What can I say? Please call my brother to come and get Shawn."

Then I'd pored over Shawn's baby pictures, sobbing and choking on images of unfulfilled dreams.

By now, everything was rushing in on me. Many times, I'd been close to this point, but I'd think, Shawn needs me, I gotta stay. He was almost a teenager and had not heard a word from his dad for a year. I was both mother and father to him. Because of his learning disabilities, I had become skilled at advocating for him, too. He needed me and I needed him. We were the only family each other had. Yet, the sadness that suffocated me, stemmed partly from watching him grow up without friends, without a 'normal' family life. I had failed him. This day there seemed to be no need to stick it out. Shawn will be better off without me. I'm just too messed up. I gotta end this pain. Then I counted the pills. There had been 107 of them when I'd started. Now there were less than a handful.

I gulped down the last of the orange juice. I remembered I had some valerian root (an herbal sleep aid) and stumbled to the kitchen for it. This was no cry for help. I wanted it to work.

I laid on the mattress for two hours or more; my eyes streamed uncontrollably while I waited for relief. The empty room matched the desolation I felt gazing at the walls. Pictures of southwest scenes, with their simple haciendas and towering cacti stared into the vacant room. Photos of Shawn smiled down on me, mocking the misery that gripped my soul. There had been no space in the car for furniture when we left Southern California, but I'd saved a few pieces of wall art. I'd never owned much, but this relocation had shoved us into the lowest level of poverty ever. I knew I'd end up like this. I'm gonna die with nothing to my name.

When I was a kid I often pictured killing myself. I'd see the funeral. Everyone would be sorry. They'd be so sorry.

Today it wasn't about 'them'. It was just about needing, no—craving— an end to the black cloud of grief that loomed over every waking and sleeping hour. Was this a permanent solution for a temporary problem? No. This was by no means a short-lived condition. It had dragged on for decades.

I lay there and waited to die.

Next, I don't know why, but I bolted upright. Some part of me had made a decision.

911. I gotta call 911.

I had no phone. I stumbled across the bare living room to the door, down the steep stairs and across the parking lot to Tom and Sara's apartment. Sparkles swarmed at the edge of my vision. I couldn't see more than a foot ahead. I caught a whiff of stale sweat emanating off my unwashed body. I climbed the stairs with cement feet and knocked on the door, swaying there in malodorous pajamas. Sara answered.

"Karen! What's wrong?"

I pushed past her, mumbling: "The phone. I have to use your phone."

I dialed deliberately.

"911, emergency."

"I need an ambulance."

"What's happened?"

"107. I swallowed 107 pills. Come get me."

I hung up the phone and trudged toward the door, without looking at Tom's or Sara's face. I gotta get back to my apartment. I don't want the paramedics in Sara's house. She'll be so upset.

Sara was upset. She supported me down the stairs, across the parking lot, and to the sidewalk in front of my apartment to wait for the ambulance. Through my haze, I could feel Sara's anxiety. I had to ignore it; this time I needed soothing. I didn't get any. I swooned, nearly blacking out from the overdose. Brilliant sunlight made me shield my eyes and a deafening ringing in my ears kept me from hearing the siren of the approaching ambulance. Neighbors began to gather around. I could see tomorrow's headline: "Crazy California Woman Brings Suicide to Our Town." I'm going to die surrounded by strangers and rednecks.

Blood-red lights now whirled before me. A man I had met the day before emerged from the emergency vehicle. He was Ed, a member of the local congregation of Jehovah's Witnesses. Sara and I had run into his family while we shopped for groceries with my food stamps. Ed had mentioned he worked as a paramedic.

Ha! Here I am committing this great sin and it turns out the paramedic is a Witness. Who cares? I'll just be dead. So what. (Witnesses teach that there is no tortured after-life, no burning hell. So I had no eternal punishment to face for my deed.) Eventually, I would have attended the three weekly Bible study meetings conducted at the local Kingdom Hall. I'd been going to these gatherings for 22 years. All my friends were Witnesses. We were "the happiest people on earth" since we had The Truth. We worshipped the True God, Jehovah. We were a "united world-wide brotherhood". So why did I feel so alone?

I'd known Sara for 18 years. We'd suffered through nervous breakdowns together. The day before, while grocery shopping, we'd discussed our difficulties adjusting to life. "What's gonna happen to people like us, Sara?" Desperation and fear peered back at me through her eyes. She said nothing.

The day I pulled into town Tom took me aside. "Don't take this wrong, Karen, but don't count on us for much support while you're here." He was straightforward as usual. He and Sara had their own demons to wrestle.

I'd taken them at their word. I hadn't bothered them that morning with the hopeless desperation I'd felt after talking to Sam, my ex, on the pay phone. I had gotten the deranged idea that Sam and I should get back together. Why I wanted to reunite with a man who had admitted to molesting a friend's four-year old daughter, is hard to explain. All I can say is I was sick—as sick as the religion that would not recognize my husband's act as "adultery" because he (supposedly) had not penetrated the little girl's vagina. She had only been "fondled"—by a grown man. According to the WatchTower Society, if I divorced my husband on theses grounds, I could not remarry and remain in good standing. The WatchTower Society only recognizes conventional adultery as grounds for divorce. Any sexual relations (as defined by the Society) outside marriage are grounds for excommunication. My husband was not disfellowshipped, since it was the 4 year old's word against his. And the Organization's definition of "adultery" is very specific. If no penetration takes place, there is no adultery. Years later I learned that he'd said she only sat on his lap. He'd lied to the church elders. At home, he told me he had molested her, but it wasn't his fault—she'd asked him to do it. Typical perpetrator. I assumed he told the elders the same thing. Of course, they didn't ask what I knew about it. I couldn't volunteer information, either, since the religion made him my "spiritual head." That meant they left it up to him to tell me what was going on at the judicial meetings—an ideal cover for a pedophile. In the twenty-two years I'd spent as a Witness, I'd learned to take this patriarchal set-up for granted. I accepted it as scriptural, God's way of dealing with humans. At that time, I had no comprehension of the price I paid for this "truth."

In spite of all this, I worked myself into a frenzy for two days anticipating talking to Sam for the first time in a year. I called my ex-sister in-law, Linda, the previous Monday. She told me Sam was living in an old car he'd picked up. He was barely working and drank regularly. He hadn't done this while we were married. There had been plenty of other problems, but I needed to remember only the "good times". Linda said Sam had been competing in a local bar's Karaoke contest. I'd always told him he had a great voice. He was an unassuming person, unable to value his own talents. Apparently his confidence had grown. I hung on to the image of Sam standing in front of an audience belting out the Righteous Brother's hits. Certainly this meant he was becoming less passive. That night while I showered, the radio blared out "Ebb Tide". I fantasized Sam singing to me: "At last we're face to face/And as we kiss through an embrace/I can tell, I can feel...are you still mine?" I ended up in a heap on the bathtub floor, the steaming water washing away a torrent of tears.

The next morning I reached Sam at his brother's.

"I miss you, Sam."

"Well, I was just wondering how we ever got divorced, anyway."

That's weird, it was because you asked for it.

"Yeah, lately, I was seeing this woman. Boy, I thought you were a bitch, but she was a hundred times worse."

Thanks. I think.

"Well, did you ever think about us getting back together?" My stomach wrenched and my breath came in jerks as I asked the fatal question.

"No, not really."

Well, there it was. That was it. Not: "I'm sorry, Karen, but not really." No "maybe," just "no." Okay, fine. I'm not even good enough for a child molester anymore.

I didn't hear the rest of that conversation, there was too much screaming in my head. By the time I hung up the phone and drove back to my apartment, hysteria had taken over. I got out the pills, wrote the notes, and poured the orange juice. I locked the front door, went into the bedroom and locked that door, too. I didn't want Shawn to get home from school and find my corpse. That's when I started swallowing the pills.

The emergency vehicle's lights still flashed and the siren continued to whine. I floated over the body and watched as it was loaded onto a stretcher and into the ambulance. Gravel cracked on the windows as the ambulance spun off. The sweatshirt was peeled up and sticky nodes leading to an electronic monitor were attached around the bare breasts. I could sense embarrassment in the part of me still in the body. This is absurd. She's dying and she's worried about strangers looking at her flat chest. Their comforting touch on her skin wasn't felt, she could not open her eyes to see, yet every sound was as a needle jabbing the eardrums. From far away they were yelling vital signs and urging, "Karen! Stay with us! Open your eyes!" Silly people. She doesn't want to wake up. This is what she needs. Go away. Soon she can leave this scene and slip into sweet, peaceful oblivion. The pain will be over.

Moments (hours?) later, the emergency room. I could hear, but not see, a dozen doctors and nurses scurrying around me. My mind had somehow been raised to a higher level, rendering a preternatural acuity—every sound told me that the end was near. Cold, bright, white lights overhead drove me deeper into the dark cave in my head. A nurse tried to force a tube down my parched throat. No! No! I wanna go! Leave me alone!

"No! That's what my stepfather did to me!" I heard my voice say it but felt unconnected to the accusation's meaning.

"I'm sorry, honey. We have to pump your stomach."

Deep, heaving waves began in the abdomen. The throat gagged each time the hard, plastic hose entered it. On the fourth try, the tube snaked down.

Shrill voices reported my condition. It didn't sound like I was going to make it. Still, they poured powdery charcoal down the shaft into my churning belly. How long was it before that black bile was sucked back up and out, bringing with it my hoped for release? I have no clue. Giving up, I let them minister to my limp body.

Hours later: Shit. I'm still alive. Something hard intruded between my legs. A catheter. Cool, pure oxygen entered my lungs through a slender tube attached under my nose. A delicate Texas accent informed me, "Honey, you're in the ICU. We need to keep an eye on you for awhile." ICU? Oh yeah. Intensive Care Unit. Twilight met my lethargic eyes. An IV protruded out of my left arm and the nodes stuck onto my clammy chest told my heart-rate. I felt detached from my flesh. The meat and bones had survived and I was still trapped inside. Once again, I could feel the leaded veins pulling me back to the black place. I pushed away the reality and crawled behind the wall inside my head.

"Your mother's on the phone dear. Can you talk with her?"

I rolled my closed eyes in a familiar gesture. "No, leave me alone."

Clicking heels told me the night nurse was leaving. In spite of my rancor, she returned with a message. "Your mom wants you to know she loves you."

Her attempt at compassion was acknowledged with a silent stare.

I don't remember much else from that night, except that I begged to have the catheter removed and I tried to refuse the juice the nurse brought each hour. I didn't fight much, though. She won every time. I knew with each sip I was helping her purge my system of the drugs that I thought would be my ticket out.

The next day I woke in a private room, my skin sweaty and crusty from the ordeal the day before. I wonder what day it is. Oh! Yesterday was October 13! Shawn will be thirteen in 3 more days. No! Don't think about Shawn. I went back to my sleep cocoon. I sucked in musty oxygen and sank beneath stiff institutional sheets. God, I need a shower. Later. It doesn't matter. I'll do it later.

Sara visited me just once in that colorless space. She fidgeted and couldn't look me in the face. She didn't stay long or ask how I was.

"I called your brother. They're coming down from Iowa."

"Thanks."

That's the last time I saw my best friend. Months later I called to talk.

"No, I'm sorry, Karen, she can't talk to you yet." Tom was shielding Sara, yet again. He had told my brother that my attempt had scared Sara, that she suffered similar notions about ending her life. She was afraid to have contact with me, afraid of how I'd almost made the fantasy come true. Sheesh, if you're that fragile, get therapy. I never got to tell her how much it hurt to be cut off like that. Or how angry it made me that I had hung in with her through so many crises, but she couldn't see past her own fear to give a little support when I needed it. I never got to tell her how much I miss her, even now.

I lost my friend, but the suicide attempt saved my life. It nudged me toward a new direction. I can't say I had an intense conversion from "I hate my life" to: "I'm so glad to be alive". I was sent to a rehab center for three weeks, after spending two days with the hospital shrinks. Rehab didn't provide much more than a brief time-out from my pattern of surviving disaster to disaster. And I was diagnosed with manic-depressive disorder. More and more drugs. But I'm not bi-polar. That's another story. After my stay in the treatment facility, I headed up to Iowa to reunite with Shawn. My brother had come down, loaded up my stuff and taken my son back to Des Moines to start sixth grade. Thank god my relatives did that much—if merely out of a sense of obligation.

Not much changed in my life, right away. Even though I'd moved to Texas, San Diego still felt like home; I never really want to leave the west coast. When I moved to Iowa, it felt like a defeat to me. I've always felt like a fish out of water in the midwest.

My family's hospitality only lasted a couple weeks. I had to quickly find a job and get a place of my own. There was going to be no time to figure out my life, heal from the suicide attempt, and plan for a successful future.

My brother came to me. "Sorry, Karen, but you're going to have to move out today."

"Even if we have to live in my car?" There were no other immediate options.

"Sorry. Mary just can't take having house guests any longer. You're just going to have to get it together."

"Bill, it's the middle of November, in Des Moines—not exactly beach weather out there."

"Sorry." He walked away, taking away most of the respect I'd ever had for him.

My sister-in-law had run out of patience. Christian kindness had its limits. (My relatives were True Christians, too—Jehovah's Witnesses.) After all, her worldly brother and his wife had stayed with them several months. She'd had enough. Predictably, my timing was bad. A woman in the congregation took us in for a couple days. I got a job as a grocery clerk and was able to rent a floor of an old farmhouse for Shawn and me. A "worldly" (that's what Witnesses call outsiders) woman allowed us to move in and pay rent later. It felt good to be trusted, if only by an unbeliever.

My irrational, downhearted mode of thinking continued to dominate. I obsessed on making enough money to get back to San Diego. I had a few real friends there. There was still Sandy, a fellow survivor of childhood abuse and bad marriages. She was stuck in a loveless union. She understood the black pain, the desperation. Sandy would call around midnight.

"How're ya doing, Karrie?"

"Oh, you know. I want to come back. I've been thinking about taking on a second job, part-time. I could save enough to get back there and get started again."

"What about Shawn, though? When would you see him?" Sandy was never accusing; the questions were presented gently.

"I know, that's a problem. It's hard enough to find someone to take him on Saturdays And I don't see him on the days when I work 12 hour shifts at the grocery store."

"I'm so sorry, honey. I wish I could do something to help."

"I don't know what to do, Sandy. I hate it here. I gotta get out of here." I sat in the dark, on the floor—we still had no furniture. I was searching for the magic answer to my problems. My friend gave me love and support, but she didn't have the fairy dust I needed.

"You know I love you, sweetie. Hang in there. I'm always thinking of you."

A month later, I got a call from Sandy's daughter. "My mom died tonight, after surgery for ovarian cancer. I knew you'd want to know."

My mood turned as gray and frigid as the January skies over central Iowa. A trip to the public library changed my outlook. I noticed an application for federal aid for college classes. I had always wanted to go to school. People thought I had a degree anyway. Maybe I could do it. The idea slowly gelled in my psyche as the way out of a life I could not bear. With this decision, I faced yet another conflict stemming from my religious affiliation.

The WatchTower Society has always discouraged higher education. In their view a college education leads to faithlessness, "higher criticism", and adherence to evolution rather than creation. Trade school or secretarial training might be OK, but a liberal arts schooling could only lead to ruin. Besides, the end of the world was just around the corner (it's been imminent for over 100 years now) and what was the use of spending time learning foolish, human ways? Better to spend one's time preaching and eking out a living doing janitorial work. Well, I had tried their way. And look what it had gotten me. A charcoal cocktail and 3 weeks in the loony bin. Anyway church leaders were beginning to change their tune about the whole thing. God's truth is so flexible. And it takes money to keep a cult going. Janitorial just doesn't pay enough. The laity has a hard time keeping up with their voluntary contributions. So, "new light" was beginning to emerge: it was all right to attend college—for the purpose of getting a better part-time job in order for one to support one's self in the ministry. Right.

I decided to pursue admission to Iowa State University. I hooked up with an adult counselor who became my guide through the administration maze. For instance, she told me how I could get into University Family housing. My attendance was dependent upon such gifts from worldly people. This same counselor taught me to just keep putting one foot in front of the other. That advice was prophetic. Especially on days when the wind-chill factor was 60 degrees below zero and I had 1/2 mile to walk to class.

I spent six weeks in El Paso, Texas 5 years ago. Three weeks were spent job-hunting, the other three in a mental hospital. This year, when the anniversary of my effort to end my life came around, for the first time, I was grateful. Every year before, I thought, Oh, I wish it would have worked. This is all just too much trouble. I never have had a bubbly "I'm thrilled to be alive" conversion. 1997 was different. This year I've looked back and been glad I'm here to see my son living on his own. He's got a girlfriend now, and sometimes we go to a movie together. A few months ago I met a wonderful man in class. We approach our relationship as equals; another "spiritual head" is not in my future. I've almost got my bachelor's degree and I look forward to grad school. I want to get my Master of Social Work degree so I can work with—yes—depressed people. Mostly I think I've found peace because I decided over a year ago to leave the religion that I now feel is a cult. I make my own decisions. I think for myself. I don't feel controlled by anyone. Or anything. Not by a patriarchal religious system, or lead in my veins. Whatever mistakes I make are my own. So are the victories. They're all mine.

*All names have been changed *Author's name withheld *Copyright 1997—the author


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