A few months ago, a woman once sent me a message on Facebook that began: “No pressure, but you might save a life.” She went on to tell me her problem and then asked for a solution.
The first thing I did was take a deep breath followed by a simple prayer: “God, I have no idea what the right answer is, but please help me to offer her some words that will keep her alive long enough to get the help she needs.” Then I began a response with my favorite disclaimer: “I am not a mental health professional …,” delighted that I had chosen to study theology over psychology.
The exchange had me thinking about whether or not making myself available online for these kinds of emergency telegraphs was good for a psyche as fragile as mine.
A little over a year ago I worked as a communications advisor to a technology company. I loved the people I worked with, was paid generously, and secured great benefits for my family (i.e. health insurance that actually covered appointment fees). The demands of the job could be intense at times, but I never took my work home with me. I dare say it was somewhat refreshing writing about a topic I cared absolutely nothing about. However, there was some serious deterioration going on inside.
I could feel my soul rotting.
Ten more years of crafting press releases on cloud text analytics seemed to me to be a cop out on the job I was sent here to do: saving as many people as I can from killing themselves.
A few months ago, while reading the book “Man’s Search for Meaning,” I had a “burning bush” moment—when I could hear the voice of someone other than my five alter personalities say something like “If you build it, they will come.” Holocaust survivor and renown psychiatrist Viktor Frankl believes that if you can find some meaning in your life—in a creative act, a relationship like motherhood or marriage, or in suffering itself—than you can survive any tragedy. I knew, then, from a still place inside my heart, that living gracefully—without bitterness—AROUND my treatment-resistant depression was my opportunity to “transform a personal tragedy into a triumph, to turn one’s predicament into a human achievement.”
I would do this by building a place online that people could “undrown” or “unsuffocate” as the Spanish word “desahogar” means, where we could help each other recognize the ANTs (automatic negative thoughts) that color so much of our thinking and direct us toward despair. We could rally by each other and help each other be brave. This URL would be home base for those of us constantly running from whoever or whatever is “it.”
I began by creating a closed support group on Facebook that, in three months, grew to 1429 people.
That was the easy part.
The hard part happened two days ago.
A woman on the site posted some pretty disturbing messages, vague intentions to kill herself. One of the members was very concerned and called the cops. This, then, raised the question: What do we do when that happens again? What’s the policy?
“I can’t NOT do anything if a person says she is going to take her life,” one member said. “I wouldn’t be able to live with myself if I merely logged off, leaving her on the railway with a train barreling down the tracks.”
“It should be the same as in real life, right?” asked another. “If you see someone having a heart attack or in some life-threatening situation, you have a moral obligation to do something about it.”
I closed my eyes and saw 1429 people on the railway tracks.
And I panicked.
I thought about the time a reader posted a desperate comment on one of my blogs, indicating he was “checking out.” I had been in touch with him off and on for years, as I enjoyed his provocative, intelligent quips, and his unremitting support of my work.
I didn’t want him to die.
Legally, I was bound by the website that employed me to, under no circumstances, be in contact with any reader. If I reached out to one and something went wrong, the website could get sued. But I could live without my job. I couldn’t live with myself if this wonderful human being perished and I could have stopped it. So I did something very unprofessional and called him.
“Kevin,” I said. “You have got to get someone over there right now. Who do you have in the area?”
“Call her. RIGHT NOW!”
“I’m not getting off the phone until you promise me you will call your sister.”
She came and drove him to the hospital.
A week later he called me and thanked me.
From his home on earth, not in heaven.
“This support group stuff is getting a little messy,” I explained to my husband yesterday over coffee. I had taken the morning to regroup and try to get some perspective.
“You can’t be responsible for 1400 lives,” he said. “You know that, right?”
“You could have 5,000 very depressed people in your group by next year. Statistically speaking, some of them will commit suicide. You can’t hold yourself responsible.”
“I know, I know,” I said. “This is just so hard.”
I took a deep breath.
“I don’t know if I’m strong enough.”
I thought about the story of the quadriplegic Chad Hymas that Kevin Hall writes about in his book, “Aspire.” Chad’s goal was to wheel day and night, stopping only for rest and sleep, until he made it to Las Vegas, 513 miles away. If he could accomplish this, he could then encourage and inspire other people to follow their dreams, no matter what their limitations are.
The beginning was easy. There were dozens of friends and fans cheering him on and TV cameras rolling. However, a hundred miles into the race he almost caved. A horde of crickets were swarming over him, getting under his clothes. The stench of their carcasses was repulsive. And the heat! Hall writes:
In all those middle miles, when the temperature of the pavement soared above 120 degrees and his grip became so weak that his hands needed to be taped to his pedals and he was averaging less than two miles an hour, Chad went from counting hours to counting mile markers. When it got really tough, his father stepped in and said, “Son, instead of counting the green mile markers, why don’t you count the yellow stripes in the middle of the road? They come a little faster.” Chad was too numb to protest, and so he relearned something he already knew: by reducing that purpose to small and smaller steps, one day at a time, one mile at a time, one hour at a time, and even one yellow stripe at a time, your ultimate destination becomes achievable.
The story belonged in Hall’s chapter about “passion,” which mean “sacred suffering,” being willing to suffer for what you love or for your life’s mission and purpose.
I’ll never know if what I wrote to that lady on Facebook was enough to keep her alive. I’ll never know if my efforts save anyone besides my reader Kevin. But if I can just focus on one yellow line at a time—one life at a time—then I won’t be afraid to meet my Maker. I can tell him confidently that I tried my very best to do what I think I heard him say in the burning bush.
Originally published on Sanity Break at Everyday Health.