Angie's story

This about my friend who is in the hospital following a suicide attempt (or two, actually).  I know she values her privacy, so I don't want to infringe on that, but I thought it might help some of you with at the very least your curiosity and maybe with a friend with similar needs should you ever be in this situation.  On the flip side, I'm still very much open to suggestions for strategies and anything else that might help her here.  Obviously, in telling this story I am changing her name and avoiding any identifying details, but it is factually true and as complete as I can make things (hence the length here; sorry).

Thanks to everyone who wrote to me in response to my request for help about her, even if it was only with condolences and concern.  That meant a lot.  Thankfully, it turns out I have a lot more screwed up friends than I thought, many of whom have been in similar positions and have gone pretty far down the suicide path (e.g., to the ER).  While I haven't posted much if anything on the subject, I went through several periods of moderate to even severe depression in the past (and hopefully will never go there again).  It's reassuring to know there are others in that club because depression is a very isolating disease in a number of ways, including the fact that you can't convey what it is to anyone who has never experienced it largely because there's simply no bridge there from everyday experience.  Extrapolating from feeling "down" won't cut it, trust me (or us, rather).  Remember that when trying to get at what would lead Angie to this point.

The following is largely constructed from emails to a number of parties, so I apologize if it sometimes reads a bit disjointed in terms of style or redundant details.  I didn't have time to polish this or really flesh out what is really a life story since I promised it to more than a few of you who asked about her.

If you aren't interested, that's fine; I don't think any of you know her personally, but if reading this jogs any thoughts in your mind, that's what this is here for, so please share them.

The downward spiral

It's hard to know the beginning of Angie's story, and I honestly don't know how much to believe of the chapters I didn't witness firsthand anyway since I'm mostly going off of her word, but the downward spiral here includes major surgery leading to missing a lot of days leading to being fired from her job leading to losing her car leading to an inability to find another job.  There's more to it all than that, but she ended up in a bad place financially and was perpetually on the verge of eviction.  In other words, it wasn't just that she mentally went off the rails; her entire life had as well.  Whether you can separate those two or not is debatable, but not by me.  I've got more story to tell here.

Angie and I have known one another for about a year, and when I met her she had a job, car, and was up on her rent.  She had a healthy cynicism that usually translated into a witty sense of humor.  Sure, she could rag on about things she didn't like, but it wasn't like she had a dour outlook on everything.  Unfortunately, she goes through times where she just withdraws and then (fortunately) comes out of it... usually.  She's never exactly posted a "care and feeding guide" anywhere, but she's told me it's best to just to leave her alone for a while when she gets like that.  So I do because I either get silence or hostility in return for any attempts to get through to her.  Obviously this loses her a lot of friends.  Most give up after the first time and rebuff her when she comes back into the light and tries to reconnect with them.  If you're wondering why I put up with this game with ever-changing rules, I don't know.  I'll go into her better points later, but I think above all what I wanted was to understand her, and I wasn't going to do that by ignoring her when it was clear she was trying to make an effort to explain herself.

As you might have guessed, she has been diagnosed as bipolar for a number of years now, and virtually all of her problems can be traced back to that disorder and the patterns stemming from it.  For example, she tends to decide she can do without her medication, so she gets off of it.  Guess what happens then?  Yep, and the spiral continues until everything comes to a head and she absolutely no choice but to seek out a shrink and get back on the drugs in order to get her life back under control.  She's also stubborn, iconoclastic, etc.  She doesn't like being told what to do, so eventually she starts ignoring doctor's orders and following her own reasoning, as fallible as it turns out to be.

I've dealt personally with depression and other issues.  While I've never been anywhere near the depths Angie has been, I understand that it's something other than an extended version of what all of us experience from time to time.  Part of depression is having a thoroughly skewed worldview that is difficult to overcome even with conscious awareness that things are not as bad as they seem.  If you've never been a member of this club, you'll never get at what she or any other member of it is thinking/feeling by trying to imagine yourself in her place simply because there's no bridge to it from normal experience.

Like I mentioned above, this latest phase was the farthest down I think she has ever been.  I don't know all of the details of the domino effect or her complicity in each collision along the way, but she ended up in a life situation that seemed to have no way out.  It looked like she was going to be on the streets.  The only thing she was holding on for were her cats.  She loved this bunch that started off as hers, plus a few more she picked up when her sister moved and threatened to put them on the streets if no one took them in.  Now Angie was in the same position.  She spent a lot of her time online trying to find homes for them or at least no-kill shelters to take them in.

About a month before this latest suicide attempt (there have been several previously, though none since I've known her), she went dark again.  She wasn't online anymore and didn't respond to any mail.  I finally checked her blog and found that she stated her intentions to sell off everything she had so she could stockpile meds that would kill her and would do so within a few weeks.  Rather than the raving lunatic voice you're hearing her stating this in, it read as more of a big sigh.  She was just giving up.  She hadn't logged on again since the day after she wrote that.  Several weeks had passed in that time.  I didn't know that though.

I wrote her several times in the weeks leading up to this and didn't get an answer.  I didn't know if she was just ignoring the messages or whether the email didn't go through.  She had issues with messages not reaching me in the past, so I just wrote her at another MySpace account she's since deleted.  That message sat unread in my Sent box for weeks.  I checked that account periodically and saw that she hadn't logged in there either, but I wasn't watching the other one where she posted the blog.

I didn't bother to call because she seemed to avoid the phone, and instead I just went over to her place that night.  It was around 10 or 11pm when I got there, and there were people around in the back of the complex, so I didn't want to make a scene.  I don't know if she heard me or not, but I didn't want to keep banging on the door to the point that someone called the cops.  Of course, this was while her neighbors were having a domestic squabble right in my line of sight from her door, and I didn't want to get drawn into that or be loitering around there when the cops showed up, so I split.

That night and the next day I spent a lot of time on the phone with suicide prevention lines and looking for financial assistance for her.  I was new at this though, so I really only retraced some of the steps she had so far in the latter category.  There are more resources out there than I was aware of, but it's a nightmare of red tape to actually make use of any of them.  As far as the suicide hotlines, I wasted an entire day getting nothing but scripted responses from unimaginative and inexperienced operators.  I decided to just go over to Angie's again and stake out her place.  I'm not very good at the stalker game, but that's the only option I had left, and I figured it was the only way to signal that someone still cared.

Years ago when I was going out with Cathleen, one of the fringe benefits was her dad told really great, sometimes hilarious stories.  One of the ones that stuck with me was of the serious variety though.  When the family lived in Canada, Cathleen's dad was a Mountie.  They lived in a rural enough area that people sometimes became isolated during the winter, and the synergistic combination of the weather and the lack of human contact often led to depression among the residents.

Cathleen's dad put out word around the community to let him know if they noticed someone had been out of contact for a while so he could check in on them and hopefully intervene before depression resulted in a suicide.  He packed a bag full of board games like checkers and chess, hot cocoa, and a lot of the great stories I'm sure he was known for, and he used to head out to visit people who had been out of touch.  He said that after a few years of this, when he ran the numbers comparing the suicide statistics for the area over the time before and after he began the program (which had extended beyond him before long), he counted dozens of lives saved.

I didn't know what I could do in terms of psychological or psychiatric therapy, but I gave it a shot with just a guitar and my own collection of rambling stories.  I went over to Angie's that night and knocked.  And waited.  And knocked some more.  And waited.  I just sat outside on her porch with the guitar and played for a while between attempts to rouse her and get her to come to the door.  After half an hour or so, I was sitting on the patio furniture playing guitar when she finally came out.  We talked for a while and I played bits of any songs I knew by anyone she ever owned a cd by.  She looked really worn out, and finally excused herself and went (back?) to bed after about an hour, but promised she'd stay in contact again.

That sort of jump-started her for a while.  She got back online more often and was more communicative.  She had apparently written something expressing the suicidal thoughts to her family, and they (living out of state) had called the cops to check in on her.  Following visits by the police as well as me, she sent out a thank-you message to all of us.  She also wrote me separately saying, "I'm sorry I've been such a shitty friend to you, especially lately. I've been so wrapped up in my own...misery or whatever that I feel almost embarrassed to talk to people, especially friends who I have respect for.  I feel so fucking far removed from everything. You're about the only friend I have left who hasn't just given up on me. I'm sorry for being a shitty friend. Please know it's not personal.  I'm lost and I don't know what I'm doing anymore. Please don't stop being my friend."  I told her I hadn't and didn't expect to.  It wasn't her best moment as a writer.


Unfortunately, the usual pattern started up again shortly after that and she decided to off herself for real.  Friday night (more than a couple weeks ago as of this writing), she attempted to overdose on whatever medication she had on hand.  She threw most of that up, but enough stayed in her system that she ultimately passed out.  She awoke but was in a daze from the drugs and spent most of the next day passed out again before attempting to slash her wrists (and much else) with a razor blade on Sunday.  She finally called 911 and they brought her into the ER, then transferred her over to a nearby psychiatric facility.

I didn't know any of this until she called me from there on Tuesday and filled me in on the attempts detailed above and said I could pass this information on to her family.  She also stated at the time that she was to be transferred to a state hospital, and filled me in on the situation with her cats.  Though she had been trying to find placements for the cats including several rescues and humane societies, she had been stuck with all of them so far, and they were still in her now indefinitely abandoned apartment.

I went to visit her at the facility on Wednesday (they only had visiting hours on MWF and weekends), which was the day before she was to be transferred.  I picked up her keys and some other belongings so that I could get her apartment key over to her next door neighbor to go in and feed the cats.  I delivered that to them after the visiting hour was over, although I didn't know how reliable the neighbor will be in that regard.  I also knew things couldn't go well with her away from the apartment since she was behind on her rent and would have no control over what became of her belongings if the apartment manager decided to proceed with an eviction.

I expected to receive a call from Angie with updated contact information once she arrived at the state hospital, but Thursday passed without any word.  On Friday I called the facility and left my name and number with a receptionist who, according to policy/legal reasons, couldn't "confirm or deny" Angie's placement there.  The receptionist said she would forward my number on to the social worker there, but I never heard anything back from them.

Since some time has passed since I committed a lot of this to text, I'm no longer sure exactly when Angie finally reached me by phone.  She could call out on the payphones at the hospital, although it cost quite a bit and she didn't have any money with her.  I think someone at a nursing station had let her use the phone there out of pity since she was alert and oriented and was able to express her concerns very clearly.  Being a suicide case, it made sense to bring her anxiety down.  She gave me the numbers of said payphones so I could reach her there.  At that point in time she had yet to see a psychiatrist or meet a social worker assigned to her case.  (In fact, she didn't see either for more than a week.)

Over the next week after she arrived, I talked to her just about every day for as long as I could or the nurses would allow.  Obviously she was worried about the cats and her apartment as that was clearly an unsustainable situation.  The neighbor I gave the key to might be reasonably described as a crack whore.  By that I mean that there was a crack pipe in her ashtray ("That's my brother's," she said when she saw I noticed it) when I was dropping off the key.  And I had been propositioned both times I had encountered her before on the two occasions I visited the complex trying to pull Angie out of her slump.  The propositions were, of course, in the oblique manner required by the laws regarding the world's oldest profession (i.e., "You got any money I could borrow?  Well, what are you doing later tonight?  You want to get together?"), but it was clear enough what she meant to anyone but a public defender delivering a summation.  I had called the neighbors around that time to check if they were indeed checking in on the cats, but received nothing more than "Oh, yeah.  They're doing fine" in response.  It wasn't very reassuring.

Angie was of course worried more about the cats than herself (continuing the pattern that followed from the preceding months), but her life at the hospital wasn't all the great either.  She was and still is in an open ward where she's surrounded by women who are in the clinical, technical sense of the expression, completely nuts.  Whereas at the other, intermediate facility she was placed mainly with similar patients (i.e., botched suicide attempts for the most part with an elderly dementia case thrown in), here the ward had every variety of crazy including some very paranoid and violent women who would snap for irrational reasons that basically left their fellow residents vulnerable to their psychotic whims.

While I was on the phone with Angie one day, one of the women spontaneously began yelling at another who was sitting across from her, then attacked her, apparently because the aggressor believed the other had stolen her money (Reality check: No one has any money in these places; personal effects are locked up).  The nurses ran over, held her down, and shot her full of Thorazine or something along those lines; I'm going by what Angie said in the play by play she narrated over the yelling in the background.

I realize the last place you want to put someone depressed to the point of suicide is an environment that would merely drive them back to it, so one of the tactics I've been trying with Angie to keep her spirits up has been to get her to see the humor in her situation over incidents like this.  I always ask her to tell me the stories about other patients, what they've done interesting (e.g., the incident described above is a good example).  I always refer to things humorously such as, "What's new at the Star Wars cantina?"  Angie is a brilliant writer capable of taking the most ordinary material and making it poignant and hilarious, often at the same time, something David Sedaris is usually recognized as the master of.  I tell her she's collecting great material here and remind her how amazing her author's blurb will be on the book jacket when she's published.

My conversations with her during this time were exercises in hostage negotiations or a different kind.  Whenever she gets really down and is crying, I tell her something I know she'll disagree with until I can get her to say (with some coaching, admittedly), "Fuck you, bitch."  Then she says it and laughs.  It's nothing more than a band-aid for something chronic that has festered over time and in the absence of professional attention, but it's the best I can come up with.

The whole time she was in the hospital I never once got through to a professional to ask them anything about her.  This was in spite of numerous calls and messages left with secretaries and on voice mail.  I was on Angie's contact permission sheet, but no one seemed to care.

Further down the spiral

On Wednesday evening, just short of a week after she had been admitted to the state hospital, I received a frantic message from Angie saying that she had called her aforementioned neighbors to check in on the cats and found out her apartment had been broken into.  Worse still was her apartment manager was in the process of cleaning it out.  Dani and I headed over to her place to see what, if anything, we could salvage.  When we got there, then place was already a mess.  It was around 8pm when we arrived, and the apartment caretaker and his girlfriend were cleaning out the place.

Even at her worst, Angie was never a slob.  She was never terribly organized, but she always kept her living room neat.  Now things were strewn about all over the place.  Someone had broken in and had gone in and out of the place several times through a window in the back.  The apartment workers had started the clean-up by boxing things up to be thrown out, but whoever was (or were) breaking in emptied everything out all over the floor to sift for valuables.  Angie's computer and laptop were stolen (even though one didn't work at all and the other barely did, but the monitor was new anyway).  Her purse/wallet were also gone as far as I could tell.  It was public knowledge that she was out of place since she left in an ambulance with police escort, so it could have been anyone.  Spilled milk at this point.

Dani worked on rounding up the cats while I tried to salvage as much of her belongings as I could.  We had brought over a couple pet carriers and fortunately Angie had three more in the apartment.  Naturally the cats were scared and confused by the fact that they had been more or less left alone in the apartment for over a week.  To her credit, the neighbor(s?) had been leaving out food for them, but the place reeked of cat urine.  Since the clean-up was already in progress, it was impossible to say what state the litter boxes were in as they had been tossed out already.  The cats had stuck around throughout all of this, even though the door was wide open most of the time.

While Dani was trying to account for all of the cats (one of whom was hiding in a kitchen cabinet; another in the underside of the couch), I focused on the material things.  I knew we couldn't save the big items like her furniture, but I collected everything that was personal to her: photos, artwork, cards/letters.   A lot of you know about my family and Hurricane Katrina.  We were lucky that we didn't suffer any losses, but for a time we didn't know if that was the case.  I was here in Texas, and my parents evacuated to northern Mississippi where they holed up for ten days until they received word power had been restored to the area.  For much of that time none of us had any idea what kind of damage they expected to find when they returned.  My greatest concern was that all the photos had been lost.

After Katrina, I spent my next couple trips back in Louisiana surveying the damage around the area.  We visited homes in neighborhoods where I and members of my extended family had lived when I was younger.  The most heartbreaking thing in all the damage were the photo albums that were ruined by the water.  In many cases, you could tell the family had returned at some point to retrieve them.  They were pulled off the shelves and were just discarded on the floor when they found that nothing could be saved.  Even the frame photos on the walls were destroyed because the storm surge pushed the water that high.

On my last trip home, I brought back all the photos with me and spent days scanning them into my computer.  I realized paranoia is sometimes justified if something is that important to you.  Now I have the physical photos, the scans on the computer, a backup on an external hard drive, and dvd-roms in a safety deposit box.  Yeah, you could say I value you my memories, and I project those values on everyone else because I know they'd miss it if it was gone.

As far as I was concerned, Angie's past was the thing most worth saving.  She could always get a new couch, but I didn't know if she'd even have a place to put one anytime soon.  Instead, I concentrated on collecting the photos first and foremost.  Many of them were scattered on the floor in the living room, then there were loads more in boxes in the bedrooms.  Also mixed in was a lot of the artwork she had created over the years.  I knew she liked to paint from her designs on a couple walls she experimented on at one point, but she had never shown off her other work.  It all added up to the case why she was important as a human being, something she seemed not to be able to make for myself.

After some dumpster diving for things that had already been thrown out and rummaging though the wreckage of the apartment for the rest, we filled the car up with as much as we could take.  We got the apartment manager (an asshole, I should mention for more reasons that I have time to go into) to very reluctantly agree to let the cats stay one more night since the humane society and other shelters were all closed, so that meant we could take some of Angie's clothes as well.  After all, anything we didn't leave with was no longer going to be hers.

That night we posted the "Pets in need of IMMEDIATE help" bulletin looking for homes for the cats, although it was admittedly too late to do a lot of good.  I also called a couple "cat people" friends of mine and got the heads-up on some resources we hadn't tried previously.

I know what you're thinking at this point.  "Alex, I thought you fucking *hated* cats?"  Yes, I do.  I've got no use for them, but I'm also a really bad liar.  There was no way I was going to get on the phone later and tell Angie, "Well, we placed one, but the rest ended up with the city."  Like I said, the cats were all she was living for, and I couldn't stand to be the bearer of bad news here.

The next morning we headed back over and collected a few more belongings now that we had more light to see by and make some sense of the chaos.  Dani had corralled the cats into Angie's spare bedroom the night before, so they were easy enough to collect now.  However, in spite of calls to a bunch of shelters and groups, only the SPCA had a vacancy, and even then only for one cat, but we brought them all over to the facility for them to chose from, not really sure what we might do with the rest (though hoping it wouldn't come to a city shelter).

Of course, this is why I brought Dani along.  Not only did she care about the cats more even that I did, she was also able to make a much more convincingly emotive case than I could, what with all the crying and all.  They agreed to take all the cats in, even though it meant shuffling their animals around to utilize vacancies at other facilities in the network.  Ultimately, they took all but two who were ornery at the place, and I have since placed them with an experienced cat owner who didn't have any at the moment (i.e., her ex took their cat when they split, believe it or not).

That was quite an ordeal.  I was drained beyond being physically exhausted at getting up at 6am to be let in my the apartment caretaker (not to be confused with the asshole apartment manager) before he had to be at another job.  (Actually, I gave him a ride.).  It was a huge relief, and there was a big cathartic rush of emotion at the point we had the cats placed since we had saved everything else that was able to be saved.

I called Angie that night and she was grateful about the cats more than anything else.  She didn't even care about what had been stolen.  She couldn't believe the cats had been saved and asked me repeatedly if we were bullshitting her.  She had spent more than a month emailing and calling rescues and getting nowhere with them.  It pretty much took driving up to their doorstep to get them to take the cats in, something she couldn't do without a car.

A warm place

Throughout much of this, I have been in touch with Angie's dad, brother, and sister.  (Her mom passed away about ten years ago due to cancer.)  Her history with her family is very checkered, and I don't know who's right or wrong in any of it.  However, after sending them several updates on her condition and the recent events in her life (the text of which served as the basis for large sections above), they still had not called her.  I called them on this fact because, honestly, no matter what's happened in the past, that's a pretty shitty thing to do when your daughter/sister is locked up in a state hospital.

Angie's dad emailed me and said he "took exception" to my stating this (even though I wasn't as succinct or undiplomatic with them as I was above).  I didn't even see the point in responding.  I began a reply, but never got very far with it and ultimately never completed enough to send it.  As it turns out, saying nothing was probably the most effective message I could have sent.  Angie's dad finally called her last night (as of this writing... only two weeks after being admitted to the hospital).  I spoke to her earlier, and he will be sending her a ticket to head out to move in with her brother, something she had been avoiding irrationally even on the verge of eviction.

This is quite a turn-around both in terms of her circumstances and her emotional state.  Angie was exuberant on the phone, and it wasn't just medication (she's on an antidepressant and a mood stabilizer).  Having the cats taken care of and having a place to live when she is released from the institution tomorrow were a huge relief for her.  I no longer had to jump-start her with talk about what she should write; she was talking about how she planned to pen anecdotes of her stay at the hospital over the course of her bus trip to her brother's.

I'll be meeting her at the bus station on Thursday afternoon and getting some of her things to her, mostly clothes, driver's license, her birth certificate, and one of my old digital cameras to replace hers that was lost in the burglaries so she can continue developing her photo skills (and dicking around with Photoshop with what she captures).

I know it's a cliche to say I hope this isn't the end of the story but rather a new beginning.  She definitely deserves one.

[Cue that "Everybody's Talkin'" song from Midnight Cowboy]

Finally, a big thanks to all who had something to offer during this time.  There's a big stigma around mental illness of any kind in ways there isn't when it comes to acknowledging physical ailments.  No one likes to admit they've been in a state they didn't want to be in, so I especially appreciate all the anecdotes and advice since much of it was very personal, and even I don't usually like to talk about the years where I dealt with my own depression.  It's oddly comforting to know how screwed up my friends really are.  Thanks for all the support.

Angie, a postscript.
The following is a letter I just sent to Angie's dad and stepmom.  They bought her a bus ticket to comer out to visit them on her way to live with her brother.  I thought those of you who have been interested in her story would appreciate the follow-up as well.
Angie's on her way.  We had some time to visit at the bus station.  She opted not to take a lot with her of what I brought of her belongings.  She said she was just a bit freaked out right now and didn't want to lose track of things if she brought more than the bag she had with her.

I suspect she'll try to put up a confident or maybe even defiant front if she has the energy, but she's still very fragile.  She kept commenting on the surreality of the experience and the fact that she had "never done anything like this before."  I told her she was on an adventure.  You are very much getting back your little girl for the time being, so please realize she ought to be handled carefully.  I plan to stay in touch with Angie and keep reassuring her through this as well.

Thanks for getting her out to see you guys and making her feel connected while she's still adrift in life.


Copyright 2007 Alexplorer.
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