I was on an Internet forum the other night, connecting with a member from Bridgeport, Connecticut. I found her in the act of taking her own life.
“Don’t want to be here anymore” was her original post, then: “Last time I spoke to a friend she called 911 and I was in hospital for a week. I’m afraid to talk to anyone.”
“I have no one to talk to,” she went on. “Feeling so alone.”
Her final entry, which had been posted one minute previously, was: “I’m done.”
I responded immediately, trying to offer her some hope. She wrote nothing back. The silence was dreadful.
I posted a note on Facebook, briefly explaining the situation. “I’m going to mass in the morning,” I concluded. There was nothing else I could do.
“Oh, Daddy, how awful,” my daughter posted from England. ”I’ll remember her in my prayers.”
“On our way to mass right now,” wrote a Facebook friend the following morning, “adding our prayers to yours.”
Time passed. I waited, the forum screen open on my laptop. There was no word from Connecticut. Finally, after what seemed an eternity, I was able to post the following message: “Thanks, guys. I just heard from her. She didn’t go through with it.”
“Thank goodness!” a friend responded from Strathmore, Alta.
“Praise God,” my Facebook friend posted when her family returned from mass.
“Thank god,” wrote another friend, a putative atheist.
My godson responded from Toronto. I heard from colleagues, relatives, former employers, friends who had retired and moved to Victoria, fellow parishioners from long ago, and a woman I had first known as a 14-year-old girl in the resort village of Wakaw Lake.
There were responses, too, from North Carolina, Arizona, Scotland, Wales, Ohio, South Africa, and Missouri. None of these people could have known my friend in Connecticut. They were all moved to prayer — even the atheist — solely by compassion.
My Connecticut friend broke her night-long silence with a seemingly innocuous question: “How do you get a good night’s sleep?”
This explained much. The poor woman hadn’t had any meaningful sleep for four days.
A friend who suffers from chronic pain tells me that, after three days without sleep, your mind becomes unreliable, you can’t focus or concentrate, and the simplest tasks demand extraordinary effort. After four days, minor incidents assume epic proportions. Anxiety dominates, and if you are prone to depression to begin with, you start to think the world would be better off without you.
My friend’s insomnia had become life-threatening. I wrote to Bridgeport: “When I was younger there was a prejudice against sleeping medication generally, and among doctors universally. Consequently, I spent much of my adolescence sleep-deprived, physically sick, confused, reprimanded for my lack of self-discipline, and ultimately convinced of the futility of human existence. A single sympathetic doctor would have changed my life profoundly.
“The situation today is not much different, unfortunately, but if you do some research you can take your findings to your doctor and tell him — it’s nearly always still a “him” — what you need. He may be skeptical. He may disapprove. He may try to talk you out of it, for he’s convinced he knows better than you. You must be persistent. He doesn’t live in your body, and he has no real concept of what you’re going through.
“It’s not that there’s nothing available. On the contrary, pharmaceutical firms have gone out of their way to render us unconscious.”
I listed some medications I had either used myself or learned about through curiosity and research. There is a non-benzodiazepine hypnotic, for example, that leaves an unpleasant taste in your throat — but that’s the taste of sleep. I told her about a sublingual medication that works so quickly that often you’re out cold before the tablet has dissolved.
“There are all kinds of reasons not to take sleeping pills,” I went on. “There is a danger of becoming dependent, and your body may develop a resistance. But right now the need for sleep is paramount. You’ll be in no condition to make rational decisions until you’ve had some.”
As Pope Francis said, albeit in a different context, “the wounds have first to be healed, then we can talk about everything else.”
“Sleep well, and you’ll wake up in a different world,” I concluded. “And by the way, merry Christmas.”