B. Betty, RN
Even with a support system, the darkness of despair is solitary. You may hear your voice being called, but it’s from behind locked doors without doorknobs in rooms that let in no light. Support, when you’re in a fetal position, is only helpful when you aren’t mandated to get up to receive it.
I have a friend currently intubated in the ICU for a suicide attempt. She is a healer, stricken by the endless despair that we all bear witness to daily. She was either found just in time, or a few hours too soon,-the viewpoint dependent on how often one has fumbled for knob-less doors in frantic efforts to shut out the nameless voices who call out their own needs. “Don’t leave me. I need you. We can’t go on without you. Come back! Come back!” The words are prayed in a frantic eulogy, a chant of faith and superstition by people who have no realization these are the same needs that have deadbolted the door to the dark room, to begin with.
She and I have had long discussions of how the system breaks the healers. How we have become empty from our giving. We have cried in the telling of our stories-spoken in tear filled whispers, long jagged silences that crucify us as we grip each other’s hands. We drip our anguish onto our fingers, mingled tears of grief in a kind of blood sister bond of understanding. Our tears have kept vigil for each others broken spirits. Our tears have salted our dreams. Our tears have been the nourishment of our friendship.
Another friend, also a healer, once said, “The strong are the ones who fall the hardest. The weak simply complain.” The institutional rhetorical response to the few who dare ask for help to keep going is always, “stop complaining-everyone else can do it.” and “Suck it up, buttercup, you signed up for this.” This kind of on going shaming can only be ended by deciding to finally walk away. In some cases, permanently. Those who have been chased by that darkness don’t judge it. They know it is always on the horizon.
I suffered from excrutiating altitude sickness that included vomiting, vertigo, headache, numbness, tingling, dry cough and hallucinations when I hiked Mount Whitney in the Sierra Nevadas of California for my 40th birthday. At 14,505 ft elevation, it is the highest peak of the lower 48 states.
It was hard. There was a snow pack unusual for that time of year. I was slow. I fell many times. I should have turned around, but I didn’t. It was a stupid, dangerous decision that could have ended up as a medical emergency of cerebral or pulmonary edema which, at its worst, causes death. I had summit fever which is much like being in the throes of despair. No amount of logic or any kind of reasonable voice can talk you out of either. I was going to do it even if it killed me.
Sometimes looking death in the face is seductive. Sometimes you must see her face to not be afraid of her call. Sometimes she’s the only voice that can be heard. She knows us each by name.
Eight of us began training a year before our ascent. Three dropped out before we could even apply for permits. Two of us in our party made it to the top. Three in our party turned back. The three that turned back said “we will conquer this damn mountain next time.” They haven’t won permit rights again. They’ve stopped trying.
Mountains, like despair, cannot be conquered. They are instead given reverence, as both will indiscriminately take you down without caring how strong or weak you think you or those around you are. You can only summit mountains and despair with fortitude and grace. You will remember standing with your face in the wind, breathless with weariness, fearful that your pride in that moment will jinx your descent back down to where you started. You will tremble, buckling at times to your knees with a deep appreciation of making it. You will remember those who helped you along the way and understand that they may not reach the top.
My tears fall heavily. They are solitary tears, falling this time onto my own flaccid, open palmed hands. I watch them slowly make their way down my fingers, to fall away and be absorbed by the smooth cotton case on my pillow.
I’ve taken to bed as the horizon’s darkness is spreading. The room’s light is changing in the growing shadows. I can still see the doorway in the lingering light. I’m trying to keep it open for my friend, hold tightly the doorknobs before they disappear again in the fading light. I’m trying to memorize its shape and place in the room. I am hoping of all the voices I may soon hear calling, one of them will be hers.