Saturday, December 14, 2019


When I embarked on my third-year-of-four ministerial internship, the seminary advisor fought me as hard as he could because of the previous intern's experience.  Since I was always opposed to this advisor, I insisted and as a "free" denomination, I had my way.  It was Hartford, Connecticut, at the beginning of the Eighties when Hartford was a counselling town.  They wouldn't be anxious to tell you why, but the woman with whom I lived that year took me to the cemetery to show me the headstones of more than a dozen of her son's classmates who had committed suicide.  (It was forty years ago.)  Her own adult son suffered with bipolar disorder.  Every spring he bought a sports car he couldn't afford and a few weeks later his mom took it back.

I was willing to join a group meant for future clergy who were wrestling with their own guts.  The leaders of my group were two colleagues, one female and one male.  In their just-previous group one of their participants had committed suicide by hanging with no previous indicators.  It took a lot of work for the counselors to get over that, which meant they had thought about suicide and the right to do it, intensely and at length.

One of the participants and I locked into hostility. He had had an indulgent mother who taught him as a child that he must always show her the results of his bowel movements, probably for health reasons, which he interpreted as admiration, so even now he kept a photo record of every production and was upset that his wife wouldn't look at it.  He thought she didn't love him.  One didn't know whether to laugh or to cry.

The woman counsellor agreed to take me on privately and the denomination agreed to pay for it.  I would probably have been washed out except that my home clergyman (I've stopped saying "minister" because to Canadians that's a government role.) was powerful and backed me.  So did that Black Baptist counsellor in Chicago.  I made a lot of mistakes that year, which was a good thing because that counselling woman understood mistakes to be valuable "research."  And she was not afraid of suicide.  She did her job well.  We sorted my past.

In the Sixties in a marriage that ended in near-madness for both of us -- not because of the age mismatch but because of the all-out desperate struggle with fame and fortune -- I longed for some kind of escape.  My step-daughter, my age, was dying of cancer. She looked much like me and her death was almost like a prescription, even a demand. It was almost as though if I died, she would not.  Before we left for her funeral, a thousand miles away, locked into a cyclone, a vortex of emotions, I slashed my wrist.  No one noticed.  I did it wrong and it was never treated.  I just lost a little blood.  All the reading I did talked about how it was attention-seeking, narcissistic, meant to punish everyone else.  But all I felt was misery.

At first I went to a psychiatrist in Great Falls because everyone agreed the pain and chaos was all my fault.  He was partners with another shrink and one had a basset hound named for the other, but I never knew which one had the name and which one had the dog.  He interpreted me as just another selfish little bitch trying to snag money and prestige by marrying a famous artist.  He wouldn't have put it that way, since he was a kind man who meant well.  After a while e was bored and waved me off.

After Bob's daughter died, we decided we would both go for counselling.  Everyone had always told him he was "bad seed" as well, and he was taken aback that his success didn't shut them down.  First he sat down at the adding machine to make a list of our sales that year: half-a-million dollars in Browning, MT.  The psychiatrist was impressed.  Bob asked me to leave the room while he told the man something.  So I did without any idea why.

The two of us had been fighting at an unbearable level and I had threatened to hang myself in front of him.  I had the rope in my hand.  What stopped me was that he cried out, "NO!  I won't be able to save you!"  He was older by then, had had a heart attack, wasn't invincible anymore.  At first I thought that even then he only thought of himself, but later I realized this was the truth.  No one can stop you from suicide but yourself.  Others might be able to help address the reasons.

While I was out of the room, he told the psychiatrist about this.  That man called me back in alone and asked me if I wanted to tell him something.  I had no idea what he meant.  I didn't think suicide was important -- I didn't even remember the incident.  He asked me not to come back unless I was willing to tell him everything.  Many people in that town were suicidal. It wasn't special. I never went back.

The third time was close to the end and wasn't suicide at all, though everyone saw it that way.  Bob was taking Nembutal to sleep, and he kept the pills bedside.  I had what I understood as "flu" but now recognize as serious depression.  All I wanted to do was sleep, so I took a couple of Nembutal.  Later I woke up and took a couple more.  What I didn't know was that Nembutal is a drug with no room for mistakes.  It's pentobarbital, used for euthanasia.  The dosage must be carefully calculated according to the person's age, weight and so on.  A little bit too much, not a LOT more, can cause death.

So a nurse friend of Bob's took me up to Lethbridge and checked me into the hospital for detoxing.  I was high as a kite, drunk, jumping up and down on the bed.  They assigned me a psychiatrist, who listened to the long sad tale and laughed and laughed!  He was handsome and Scottish and knew a desperate grandstander when he saw one.  He had a fine sense of the ridiculousness of life.  Bob divorced me while I was up there.  When he told me,  they had to knock me out.  Such irony. He didn't save me, because I'd already saved myself, but the divorce put things in order.  I could move forward into a new life.

At the hospital I kept phoning Bob, quickly tiptoeing down the hall in my nightie like Bugs Bunny to get to the pay phone without the nurses putting me back in bed.  Now that we weren't married anymore the pressure was off.  He came to get me and I spent the winter on our little ranch with five horses and three cats.  Those months been a lifelong key time for me, returning to a sensory life with the only obligation being to put out the food.  Bob brought it out and paid for everything.   It snowed deeply and the velvet black of death converted to white.  Beauty returned and I wrote.

The Hartford counselling was many years after this.  Bob was remarried, probably in the country way.  He was proud of me, he said.  I had survived the welcome black night of wanting to die.

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