For Kelsey, Robert, Michael, and Shawna.
In 1988, I was a resident assistant at Montclair State University. I thought, this was pretty cool – I’ve got a whole floor of residents I’d be showing how to get through the rigors of college, we’d have some cookouts or potlucks, and basically I’d make an easy paycheck. But the first night that I was on duty (meaning I was responsible for the entire dorm after quiet hours)I learned about a part of life I never wanted to know about, and sadly it would not be the only time I had to deal with it. At 1:30 in the morning my phone started ringing and I was pissed – beyond pissed. My mood changed very quickly.
On the other end was 19 year old young lady in hysterics, crying and screaming for me to do something because she didn’t know what to do. I calmed her down enough to get her to tell me her name and room number so I knew where to go, and then said “okay – so what happened.” The words hit me like a truck. “My roommate tried to kill herself and I don’t know if she’s alive or dead.” I told her I would be there momentarily, hung up the phone and called down to the front desk of the dorm and told them I need an ambulance to the room, there was an attempted suicide, and I needed to go “NOW!” As I ran down the stairs – no time to wait for an elevator – my mind was racing. What had this person done, what were the means? What the hell was I supposed to do? I raced down the four flight knowing that nothing in my one week seminar taught me what to do when someone has made the decision this poor girl had made. But I headed down, nothing to do about it now but charge in. I was right – I was wholly unprepared.
I came out of the stairwell running to the room to be greeted by the roommate (the one I’d already spoken with) covered in blood and crying. Of course a crowd had already started gathering so I stopped to use one of the building phones and told the desk I need people here now to help me, and to get campus police here right away too. I managed to get to the young lady – we’ll call her Shawna (not her real name) – who had attempted suicide, and tried to work on her wrists. She had broken apart a disposable razor and slashed her wrists, and it was frankly horrific. Maybe my panicked mind has exaggerated my memory, but there seemed to be blood everywhere. She wasn’t moving, but since I had been a lifeguard and some basic knowledge I found her pulse easily and knew she was alive – clearly drunk, but alive. As ridiculous as it seems, I remember saying to myself thank god she went across the wrists instead of down the arm. But still, for a disposable razor she got in deep, and she was in trouble. As I grabbed for anything I could find as a bandage and told her roommate to bring me some water so I could clean her wounds, I started hearing all sorts of stories in the background.
“This is so stupid.”
“What a dumbass.”
“Typical, I’ll bet she was drinking again.”
Finally I’d had enough and said “anyone here see what happened or know what happened?” I waited for someone to say something, and I’m not ashamed to say my next words were “that’s what I thought –everybody shut the fuck up, and unless you can help, or add to my understanding of what happened go back to your goddamned rooms.” As I finished saying this, and knelt back down, the paramedics had made it up the elevator and were pushing into the group. They quizzed me on what I knew, which was little, and I told them that although she was certainly alive I could not awaken her. They took over, and at least for that night, I l know her life was saved.
After everyone had cleared, and the paramedics took Shawna away, I talked with her roommate. I suggested we go to the common area, get away from dorm rooms and the like. Shawna’s roommate told me that Shawna had not really had trouble fitting in or anything. Like a lot of new college students she was experimenting with alcohol, but was not (at least not to her roommate’s mind) drinking excessively. I asked what I thought were the right questions, did she seem suicidal, was she depressed, like I was a textbook, and none of which seemed to describe Shawna. Except this one thing. Her roommate said that earlier that night someone had left a note on their door, using some unflattering words about Shawa (I won’t repeat them). And that seemed to be the tipping point – she started drinking that night, was crying and “moody.” At some point she threatened to kill herself, which her roommate brushed off. Apparently while the roommate was off taking a shower, this was when Shawna did what she did.
I really didn’t know what to think. I’d obviously heard of suicide, but what was I supposed to say? I never knew anyone who tried it, I’d . I been connected to it. But now, here I was. And all I could think was this was a kid who had a bad day. A really shitty day truth be told. But she had friends. She had family. She was reasonably well adjusted. She wasn’t a “suicide case.” Was she?
I’ll never know what became of Shawna but I think about her every day. I know she survived that night – the paramedics stabilized her, her mother called me to thank me. Hell, I even got a service award for that night. But what always sticks with me was did Shawna make it. Did she get the help she needed? Did her family and friends cleave to her, and let her know that she was cared for? Did she come to understand that bad days are temporary, and why make a permanent decision. I’ll never know. But today, on World Suicide Prevention Day, along with some other people, she’ll be at the forefront of my thoughts.
Post script – talk to one another and love each other, today of all days. Let people know you care. If there’s someone about whom you worry, let them know you care, and that they are not alone. We can all make a difference to one another. Don’t wait.