the voicemail said, “call me. something terrible has happened.” my first thought was, L. is dead. when i called and discovered that i was right, that she hadn’t come to work and her son said that she’d died and they didn’t know what the cause was, my immediate instinct was, she killed herself. i never had any doubt in my mind. she was in her fifties, not super healthy but not super unhealthy either. we worked together, at the crisis mental health residence. at my job, “co-workers” doesn’t mean awkward chit-chat in the ladies room about guarded pleasantries, doesn’t mean being hushed by a boss for talking. at my job, we are together 24 hours a day, we go through so much, and we become very close. my first shift with L. was an overnight that very suddenly descended into chaos. i came back from talking one guy down after the incident to find L. sobbing in the office. “do you want a hug?” i asked, and she said yes, and there we were, in an office in san francisco late at night, her sobbing in my arms, an hour after we’d met. after that, how could we not become friends. she would yell, “hi, sweeetie!” when i arrived, all warmth and glow. but still, that deep sadness that was apparent all around her, that we weren’t allowed to touch. we’d ask how she was doing and she’d say, “i’m fiiiine!” a little too cheerfully. we didn’t question it. didn’t make sure that she was really okay.
my last conversation with her that i remember, she’d mentioned having some problems with her live-in partner. he’d called her a bitch and they weren’t on speaking terms. “why don’t you kick him out?” i asked, half-jokingly. “i can’t afford to live on my own,” she sighed, and in that tone there was so much resignation, such a sense of being trapped. and there was so much i didn’t ask, so much we didn’t ask. not that she would have told us anyway.
at the weird company-sponsored grief-counseling group, i was the one to say it. i think she committed suicide. more than one person agreed with me. more than one person expressed the belief that suicide is inevitable. i wanted to scream, if suicide is inevitable than what the fuck are we doing with our lives? we work with acutely suicidal people, and although the work we do is imperfect and underfunded and understaffed and nowhere near enough time (two weeks! TWO MOTHERFUCKIN’ WEEKS!) clients often tell us that we’ve done a good job with them, that we’ve given them hope. L., in her last week at work, in her last week of life, did a lot of really amazing work with someone who was very suicidal. was that it? was that why? was she hoarding pills while she tried to convince him to live?
human beings are referred to as “the only animal that commits suicide.” but that isn’t true. my ex-girlfriend had a snake that committed suicide. it stopped eating and she took it to the vet. the vet said that reptiles in captivity do that sometimes, once they realize that they’re in a cage and they aren’t ever getting out. they refuse to eat. they’d rather die.
now, in the aftermath, i have no energy. i ignore texts. i don’t care anymore. when clients ask me for things i want to roll my eyes. who cares. L. is dead. every day shift, she was supposed to be there, and they’re that much harder. i broke down sobbing in front of my co-workers, who were all really nice but i felt embarrassed. i have no interest in being, or attempting to be, posi about this. there is nothing good about it. nothing.
the cockroaches in my apartment have finally grown too plentiful to ignore. i don’t want to kill them, my imagination is too good, i think about the social structures that they create. i see them scampering across my apartment, full of life. they often drown in my drain, or in any puddle of water, they get incinerated in the flames of my stove and wander into the freezer and freeze to death, but they keep going. they want to live so badly. i spray them with a spray that my boyfriend helped me pick out because i’m that level of non-functional right now. they run and then they freeze, twitch for a while, then they are gone. i bear witness to these tiny deaths because i feel it’s the least i can do, even if it makes me feel terrible.
on wednesday, three co-workers and i went to her memorial service. it was on the beach. half-moon bay, several miles south of san francisco. so hypnotizingly beautiful, the clear blue water, the white sand. the signs warning that you can’t go into this beautiful water, that people have drowned just by wading. that the waves are unusually large and strong. it was here, standing in a black wool dress with the sun beating down on me, my feet bare, my toes in the pacific, that one of her friends answered my question of what happened. “she took pills,” she said. “she left a note. this wasn’t the first time, or the second time. it was more like the twelfth. we all knew we’d lose her this way. it was just a matter of time.”
we didn’t know. she’d never told us at all. a lot of people at work, myself included, are open about our own painful struggles with mental health issues or drug addictions or whatever has shaped us. it’s about half and half–people who’ve gone to school vs. people who’ve lived it. she’d gone to school, and she didn’t talk about her past. so we all assumed that she didn’t live it. we never asked. we never thought. she was such a good counselor. i said, at some point, maybe on a shift or maybe on the car ride home, if L. can’t survive this job, how can anyone?
her adult son told us that the job was what kept her going this long. he said that he’d visited her at work, how he hadn’t wanted to go because his mom had to stay at places like our job, after every suicide attempt, and they were always so white, so sterile, so sad. he thought it would remind him of a sad time. but he visited her at work and saw the bright yellow and orange walls, the clients all cooking with his mom and having a good time, and realized that it was different, realized why she wanted to be there. her ex-husband told us that the note was addressed to her four adult children, and that it essentially said, it’s not like you aren’t worth it, but i just can’t do this anymore. her daughter had made an altar on the beach, full of pictures of her mom throughout various stages of her life. it was beautiful and sad. i took a picture with my shadow cast over it from the setting sun.
in a cruel twist of library availability, “being flynn” finally came on the holdshelf for me the day afterwards. it’s a movie based on nick flynn’s memoir, “another bullshit night in suck city,” about working at a homeless shelter where his estranged father is a resident, while recovering from the suicide of his mother. i watched it and could relate far too much, especially when they talked about the kinds of people who work at such a draining job–the jesus freaks, the ex-cons, and the punks. (i think we all know which category i fall into!) there’s a moment where they all talk to the camera about why they’re here, the punks shouting, “this job is so hardcore! i could never get this adrenaline rush anywhere else!” lili taylor, playing the front desk monitor, smiles at the camera and says, “i used to be a crack addict and a hooker. i clawed my way up and i got this job. within two years, i’ll be back on drugs and back in the street. because,”–her smile turning rueful–“everyone knows that you can’t stay changed for long.”