Professionals in human services can always tell you about the one client who impacted them the most. That one client that broke their heart. That one client that made them lose sleep or cry at their desk. That one client that needed more than they could give.
This is the story of my one client.
I was the director of a small nonprofit organization providing brain injury services. It was a November afternoon, and my assistant had gone home for the day. I was alone in the office, tired of working on a grant application, starting to burn out.
That’s when he called the first time.
His voice was robust, almost jovial. His accent was unmistakable — he was definitely from what we affectionately call “LSD” — Lower Slower Delaware.
Despite his tone, he said he had called to ask for help. He had no money in his bank account and no food in his refrigerator.
He explained that he suffered from short term memory loss. He told me that the year before, he had been the victim of his own failed suicide attempt, which was the result of clinical depression and a host of tough life changes.
He had survived, but not unscathed.
The resulting injury to his brain had caused him to lose the ability to make new memories.
(Yes, like the movie 50 First Dates, but not funny. Not funny at all.)
I listened as he explained his crazy days. He would wake up, shower, and get dressed. Then he would cook breakfast. He would look at the time and think, Wow, I need to get into the shower. He’d take another shower. Then he’d begin cooking breakfast again. It was insane.
His days were like a scratched record, forever repeating itself unless someone or something intervened.
His morning routine wasn’t the only portion of his life that was affected. The repetition was his norm — all day, every day.
One morning he realized that water was still draining as he got undressed to take a shower. “I didn’t know if I was about to take my third or sixth shower of the day,” he said.
So he began writing down everything in a composition book. He made notes on the food he ate, the TV shows he watched, and when he took his medication. You name it, he kept track of it — and he did so religiously.
One day, someone ripped a page out of his composition book. It was the same day his bank account balance dropped to zero.
“That day is just missing,” he said, his voice finally breaking.
He needed to get food and try to recover a portion of his savings or investigate the loss. I connected him with a state case worker, then got in touch with a local food pantry that was more than happy to help. This required follow up, so we stayed in touch. Over the next few weeks, we developed a camaraderie, and I would always take his call, no matter how busy I might have been.
I suggested a thousand different cognitive strategies that worked for others with memory issues. He employed a few and felt good about them.
His vocational caseworker was working with his state caseworker and together we celebrated each small victory. His spirit seemed buoyed by his progress.
The whole time we spoke, I had no idea how hard he was still struggling to maintain sanity.
Then, without warning, I got the phone call no one ever wants to receive.
I was alone at work later than usual. He called, and instead of our usual small talk, he seemed uncomfortable.
He took a deep breath and said, “I’m sorry I have to ask you do this, but…”
A chill ran up my spine and up my scalp. This can’t be real, I thought.
But it was. He asked me to tell his children he loved them. He said his life had become unrecognizable to himself and to others, and he didn’t want to live this way anymore.
Despite being rattled, I wrote down every word. Frantically, I thought, Can I get hold of the police on my cell phone while he’s still on the line with me? With one hand I wrote and with the other I dug through my notes for his address.
I had taken a class on suicide prevention and one phrase came back to me: Someone who tells another person they are going to commit suicide is asking for help.
I said everything I could think to dissuade him. He allowed me to try to change his mind. I kept him on the line for at least twenty minutes. I didn’t give up. Eventually he said goodbye and politely hung up the phone.
I freaked out.
I called the police, crisis intervention, and his case manager. I thought of driving to his house, but I knew I couldn’t get there in time.
I was not a crisis specialist. I had to let the experts handle it.
I didn’t sleep that night.
The police called the next morning to tell me he had been found in the ocean, nearly drowned. He was alive, conscious, and in the hospital. And probably madder than a wet hornet, I thought.
Once stabilized, he was transferred to an inpatient crisis center and put on suicide watch. I spoke with him several times via payphone while he was there. He assured me he wasn’t going to try anything else. I wasn’t convinced, but I guess he charmed the crisis center staff, because he was discharged a few days later.
We kept in touch for a while, then he stopped answering his phone. It was very abrupt. His caseworkers couldn’t get hold of him, either.
In January, his 21-year-old son called to tell me that his father was gone. He had “borrowed” a friend’s gun. And this time, he had succeeded in ending his life.
He was brain dead. His body was on life support at the hospital. That evening, the family was coming together to pull the plug.
Later, I found his obituary online. His eyes were bright and he was smiling. He had five o’clock shadow and mischievous eyebrows. He was pretty close to what I had pictured.
As I looked at his photo on my computer screen, I couldn’t help feeling I had failed a dear, dear friend.
It didn’t matter that I had never met him in person. He would emotionally come apart to me on the phone and I would try to give him hope. You don’t go through something like that without getting close to someone.
But I felt nothing I had done for him mattered. I gave him everything I had, and it still wasn’t enough.
In the end, he was a sad man with a tragic life, and I couldn’t make one whit of difference for him.
The one thing I could do was transcribe my notes from the “tell my family” phone call. I thought he would have wanted me to do that. In tears, I typed up his “final” words and sent them to the address I had on file.
It took months for me to emotionally absorb what happened.
With time, it occurred to me that despite the violence of his departure, he had left this world on his own terms. He had taken control of his out-of-control life. He wasn’t scared, confused, or hurting anymore. He was free.
An entire year passed before I could write about the experience.
All tragedies have a lesson. For me, the lesson was one I really needed to learn.
He wanted to go. All the help I offered kept him here.
No matter how hard I tried, I simply couldn’t help him.
Esther Hofknecht Curtis, BSOL, MSM-HCA is an independent writer from Smyrna, Delaware. Follow her on Facebook — go to https://www.facebook.com/TheArdentReader19977/