Ordinary Miracles

Posted on August 22, 2009

“Hold tenderly who you are and let a deeper knowing color the shape of your humanness.
There is no where to go. What you are looking for is right here.
Open the fist clenched in wanting and see what you already hold in your hand.
There is no waiting for something to happen,
no point in the future to get to.
All you have ever longed for is here in this moment, right now.”
~ Oriah Mountain Dreamer ~

One of the times in my life that I felt the most powerless came just after I thought I had regained power – at least over my own life. I had just started some group homes for people who had serious mental illness. They were to be combined with a ‘clubhouse’ of sorts for these people to attend during the day where they might learn things from and share things with one another.

If you never have been around anyone who has been hospitalized for a long time (institutionalized), I’m sure you would have difficulty in understanding how tenuous their grip on living in the community is at first. It’s nothing like the place where they may have been for decades – someone decided everything for you there – when to rise, when to eat, when to bathe, when to have ‘free time’ – when or if you could even do things most adults do – like enjoy the company of another person alone or read a book in solitude. They don’t get little luxuries like that.

I was really enjoying doing this work – we were a merry band and little by little, we could see people taking positive steps to enrich their own lives. It was so rewarding – so wonderful to witness those things – like watching your child take its first steps without help. Of course, there were crises, but for the most part, there was much more good than bad time.

The people in the program all took medicines. We were required to keep the medicines locked up to ensure no one stole them or that they were not used to suicide. Now there’s a dirty word. I’ll never ‘judge’ someone who does it….only mourn their loss and try to understand while grieving with their friends and family. It leaves a terrible guilt on people when someone chooses to end their own life.

Back then, as we were embarking into uncharted waters and striving to do new things… I never realized that I would find that out in the worse possible ways.

There was a young fellow – not yet twenty-one. He had been in and out of hospitals through his teens with depression. He had warm and loving parents who had themselves experienced so much pain when their son – their only son was diagnosed with this illness and began to require prolonged treatment away from home. That alone is heartbreaking for parents. Realizing that the dreams you dreamed for your child will never come true in many ways is the second heartbreak. But they were brave, resolute in wanting to help their child and stood by him through thick and thin.

One day, he got upset with someone over some silly thing – I cannot remember what because it was so trivial. He had gone to an appointment with his therapist and was picking up his prescription medications and bringing them back to the group home after. There was no reason to be worried for him – there were no signs or symptoms of suicidal behavior there.

Right before noon, a call came for me. He told me that he was so angry that he had decided to ‘show’ everyone and make them sorry that whatever had happened. He said he had taken all of his medication – a month’s worth. I asked him again to tell me how man he took while I pulled his chart to be sure of what he was taking and try to determine what kind of lethal potential was there. He repeated …all. That was so much over the limit of what could kill him that my mind reeled. Additionally, the medication he had taken was a central nervous system depressant – I knew it would cause him to stop breathing before long.

I sensed fear now in his voice instead of defiance. When I asked, he told me that he did not want to die. “Stay where you are,” I told him. “Sit down and just be calm – I’m on my way to get you.” I tore outside with his chart, the keys to our van and another staff member with me. We rushed across town to where he was and found him right where he told us we would. Het got in the van and we went straight to the emergency room.

When we got there – I did not even let him walk – pushed him into ER in a wheelchair to minimize his heart rate….and perhaps lessen the effect of the drugs going into his system. The doctor proceeded to put a tube up his nose and into his stomach – this is an awful, but necessary thing to do. They ‘pumped’ his stomach . The had him drink charcoal and water and pumped it more.

Meanwhile, I was trying to reach his parents who lived about 40 minutes away to let them know what happened. They weren’t at home – but whoever answered the phone said they were in the little town where they lived shopping. I asked that they call me as soon as they come in.

Back in the trauma room, he’s still talking and alert – as much as anyone can be with tubes coming out of your nose and charcoal going in and coming out of you. They’ve started an IV and have him hooked up to EKG. I follow the doctor outside of the room to ask how serious it is. I was feeling more comfortable at that point – but still needed some reassurance. He told me they would have to keep him to monitor his heart and respiration. The drug he took could stop either and there was just no way of telling how much had been absorbed, because the amount was so large. That was not very reassuring.

I try to call his parents again. They’re still not back. I have the person who works for me making all our necessary notifications and writing critical incident report notes.

Then, I hear the alarm on the monitors go off – everyone comes rushing into the trauma room. I am shocked – but still almost expecting them to come out and say things are okay. That doesn’t happen. More doctors go in. A nurse comes out and asks me where his family is…..I told her I have been trying to reach them. She tells me they need to get there ….now. I picked up my cell phone and call again. They are still not home. I ask the person there which stores they went to. They tell me. I called the state police and told them what was happening asking that someone locate and escort them to the hospital ASAP.

Now, the door is left open. One doctor is performing a tracheotomy – another is doing a ‘cut down’ into his femoral artery. He’s in respiratory distress and they are trying to get him an airway – it’s difficult, the drug caused his windpipe to spasm. People are moving in and out so fast. Again, the nurse asks me where are his parents. By now, the state police have called to say they located them and are on their way. I tell her that it will take probably another 20-30 minutes.

They fought so hard to save him. I watched them – time after time they thought they were over one hurdle – only to met by another. Later – the doctor told me that they were trying to keep him alive so his mom and dad could tell him goodbye…they did not really think he was going to live after he coded for the second time. When he pronounced him…I just stood there in utter shock.

How…how could this have happened? He didn’t want to die! He didn’t mean to harm himself – he just wanted attention and for someone to understand he felt small and alone and needed a hand. My mind was screaming, but my lips were mute. People were trying to ask me questions and all I could do is turn my head towards them and stare in disbelief. This did not seem right. Where was God anyway – what’s up with this?

I could feel tears flowing down my cheeks, but I was not sobbing – no sounds – just staring with those tears streaming away. Before I could recover my senses – my employee came to tell me that his mother and father were here. The doctor who had worked on him asked me if I had ever given ‘the news’ to anyone before. I never thought I would do this! All I could do was shake my head “No. ” He asked me if I wanted him to tell them or go with me. I told him, “No. ” I felt that I must go to them and tell them – it was my place to do that – I was responsible for their son and I had to be the one to tell them. I washed my face in the sink right next to where he is laying dead.

The nurses were removing the tubes, washing away the blood and making him look better for his mom and dad to see. I just walked up and held his hand for a second – looking at him. His hand was still warm – not the cold feeling of one dead. I just wanted so badly for this not to have happened – for him to open his eyes and be alive again. I knew he was gone and I had to tell him goodbye – but I wasn’t ready. I grieved so for this little lost fella who just made a bad choice that cost him his life.

I left the trauma room and went to meet his parents. I suppose just like I knew – his mom and dad knew from the look on my face what had happened. All I could say was ‘I’m so sorry, he did not make it.” Such insignificant and unfeeling words – why didn’t I think of something better to say? I brought them into the room to be with him. I was turning to go – to give them some privacy when his mother’s grip on my hand tightened and she pulled me next to her. Those were probably some of the hardest moments of my life – to feel their pain added to my own – their disbelief coupled with mine – and to feel that somehow – that lady was comforting me as much as I was her. I felt so cheap and useless – so little and without any power against anything.

The days and nights that followed were horrible. Of course, we had the funeral. His friends – the other people in our program wanted to be there.

Then, they got depressed. It seemed like one crisis after another – just a long, unending pain with no respite. I had to answer to the ‘powers that be’. Of course, it was not a blame game – but in debriefing we did set some procedures in motion so this would not happen again. Well – I was glad for that, but it just did not seem enough to me.

What was I doing here? No one told me there would be days like these – or dead people. We were supposed to be the merry band of ‘getting better’- the ones who opened the doors to ‘The Cuckoos’s Nest’ and let everyone out. What the hell was going on – where had I gone wrong? I couldn’t sleep. I couldn’t even get drunk. I tried that a few times. Went to a bar, sat down to drink with drunkeness the goal. Then I saw him – right there – dead, white, cold – lying on the pool table. That’ll shock you stone sober, I tell you.

I know I wandered around going thru the motions, doing what I was supposed to do but I am certain I was developing that glassy eyed stare – you know the one people have when their mind really isn’t with them anymore?

Whenever someone even remotely mentioned suicide, I freaked out…. I wasn’t taking any more chances … no more dead boys on my watch! The more I did it, they more they threatened .. since doing so had now had such rapid rewards.

First, one the psychologists I worked with tried to talk to me and express concern for my well-being. Then a psychiatrist – then another psychiatrist. Oooops – something is slipping in my mind.

I finally got a grip on myself – but it was in my own time. I had to take off a few days and stay away from those things that reminded me of this. I had to reach inside myself and remember who I was and what I wanted to do and re-calculate the risks involved in doing that. I suppose, in a way – I had to choose life all over again for myself and figure out once again how to live it.

Life is a journey for sure friends – not a destination. We never get to rest on our laurels. We never get to feel ‘comfortable’ for too long at a time. Bad things happen to all of us along the way. We just have to use the pain to learn from – to let it color our existence. It’s part and parcel of who were, who we are and who we are becoming in any given moment. It’s the denial of it – the refusing to offer it’s due – that’s where we get in trouble – that’s when it extracts a pound of flesh from us in one ugly little way or another and leaves us right back at square one and waiting for us to affirm it.

As one year turned over into the other one, I would face more suicides – more deaths from physical health causes related to their mental illness. So many times, no family was around and I was the one to plan and execute a funeral for someone I had grown to care for. Before the end, I suppose I had arranged almost a dozen such funerals – attended more. Wow – to think that before the first one, I had only been to one funeral in my whole life – my grandmothers. I still have a hatred of funerals. It seems like all the ghosts of days past surface around those places and sometimes, it’s just too much for me to take at one time.

Luckily, there were also proms, weddings, birthdays, once – a baby getting born and all of the rest of life in full crammed into those days. We got to help people learn to read and balance a checkbook – their first; graduate high school, vo-tech school and college; get their first driver’s license. We helped many get their first apartment in the world on their own. We had great parties for them. We were with them for the firsts and the lasts – the worst, but still the best days of their lives. That allows me to look back at them and only feel that we all shared in something special – the days of each others lives and I suppose even the last minutes of them and their death sometimes.

It didn’t make it feel any better at the time, but it does now. I know that those who are gone are free and that at least, for a while – we were able to let them live with dignity and enjoy what life they could. I’ll always remember us all laughing and learning – the way we were -when we were together and making ordinary miracles.

For all my ‘friends’- gone and still living – who have and who still struggle with mental illness – they’re the real makers of ‘ordinary miracles every blessed day!’

Last edited by katie on September 10, 2009, 10:13 am

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2 responses to “Ordinary Miracles”

  1. This is very moving.  You walk us through the experience so that we can feel part of the pain along with you.  That, to me, is one of the most beautiful things about the scene when the mother grabs your hand and grieves with you.  Somehow, feeling the pain with someone else can begin healing.

    On just a technical note, you switch tenses a few times and it can be confusing.  Other than that, I thought you told your story with deep emotion and attention to the sensitive areas of life.

  2. I think this is probably the best story I’ve yet read on Writers Harbor.
    It certainly is powerful.

    Several things here reminded me of similar events in my life.
    I need to write a story or two about people who needed to hold my hand.
    I understood, and I let them. In public.
    I got laughed at, and received crude jokes later from fellow pilots about being a homosexual.
    But truthfully, I was dealing with children, young men, mentally retarded.
    who just needed to reach out, and did so in their way. They wanted to hold my hand.

    Life is a ride. Often, you fall off your bike, or they knock you off for cruel fun. You just gotta climb back on.

    Mental disease strikes in various forms. Not just those with a low IQ.
    I have known, and know, people who are magnificently creative, highly intelligent, who are screamingly bi-polar.  There is a condition, often not recognized, which cases great personal suffering.

    To be gentle, with oneself, and with others, is not always easy. To know when to be firm, when to put the foot down… When to listen, when to raise your voice.

    With the best will in the world, sometimes we get it wrong.

    Great story

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