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Imagine being homeless for a moment -- in Duluth. You just left the hospital after being admitted for feeling suicidal. You no longer feel suicidal, though still hopeless and horribly depressed.
You take a bus to the homeless shelter downtown. About 80 men sleep on mats on the floor almost touching each other. The stench of unwashed bodies is overpowering. A shaky, skinny man sees the wristband you forgot to cut off when you left the hospital. He asks you if you have some pills he can trade you cigarettes for. Other men listen in.
You feel trapped. You start to shake with fear. You have gone from wanting to die to feeling like cornered prey. You think about the family you lost, the job you were laid off from when the plant closed, and how events conspired to bring you to this point. You want to drink yourself into oblivion. You don't want smokes. You want booze.
In the past, you often drank some beers after work -- and maybe a bit too much with your friends during Sunday football games. But it wasn't much of a problem; you had it under control. Now, the desire for alcohol is overpowering.
You ask the man with your shaky voice how much money you can get for 15 Clonazepam and 15 antidepressants. He says he only has smokes but knows a guy with money. A few minutes later a greasy short guy approaches you. He says he will give you $20 for the Clonazepam and nothing for the antidepressants. You take out the bottle. He asks to count the pills. You dump the pills into your hand counting them out one at a time. He hands you the $20. You are elated that soon your feelings of despair, remorse and abandonment will be numbed. You can't remember the walk up the street to the liquor store.
You walk into the store, looking for the cheapest and largest vodka bottles you can find. You see some plastic liter bottles of vodka. You can afford two. You bring them to the counter in a rush, like a lost traveler in a desert dying of thirst. Your only focus is to get this vodka into your mouth as fast as you can so your feelings of shame, abandonment and hopelessness will be gone.
You give the clerk the bill. He hands you $3.98 in change and puts each bottle into a small brown bag. You shove the change into your pocket; you're out the door in a flash. Your thirst is so great that you begin to shake while you walk. You turn into an alley, sit down and twist the plastic top off of a bottle. You bring the clear liquid to your mouth and drink it down deeply. It burns going down. You feel its warmth melting away your longing to hold your wife again.
You think of your daughter and her look of despair as you drove away. You remember going to work and how good it felt to have a purpose. You think of the big hugs your son and daughter gave you when you came home from work, running so fast at you that they thumped into your chest. Your wife giving you deep kisses after supper. All these things are gone now.
The pain is so overwhelming that it feels like a spear driven through your chest. Each memory is the spear being twisted back and forth, making sure that who you were and what you had is dead.
The bottle desperately goes to your mouth again. You practically inhale the vodka now, but it doesn't burn as much. You feel it spreading over your body. The pain from the spear is a little less. You think about what you should have done that might have made a difference. You can't imagine. It was like dominoes.
The day you heard the plant was closing. Feeling terrified to go home. The hundreds of job applications and many interviews for low-paying work. The bills piling up. The arguments with your wife. How the booze made it all seem less overwhelming. It all happened in a flash. The next thing you knew you were divorced and living in a hotel. When your money ran out, you were on the street and wanted to die.
More than half the first bottle is down now. You feel warm and numb, head to toe. You try to walk down the alley. You stumble and fall, clutching your bottle. Your backpack makes you even more unbalanced. All your worldly possessions are in it. You walk over to a dumpster to urinate. The world feels like it is tipping to the side. You see another man passed out, sleeping by the dumpster, so you go to the other side. Relieved, you again sit down on the curb and take a long drink out of your bottle, leaving only a third of it.
You tip to your side. Darkness overwhelms you. Your pain is gone till you wake up. When you do wake, you may be able to numb it again if you haven't been robbed of your second bottle. The antidepressant? It isn't going to help. That nurse guy told you it doesn't work if you're drinking. He also said it could take two to five weeks to see a benefit. The vodka is a sure thing. You are not dead but not really alive. You're lost in between. Suicide the slow but sure way.
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This is not the story of any particular individual. It is a composite, based on my work as a psychiatric nurse. I tell it because I hear so many people being callous to suffering people. I have seen many treat mentally ill/chemically dependent people as garbage. With contempt, hate and scorn. Little do they realize that it may only be a small nick in their life that causes everything to unravel, as it did for this man. I have seen men and woman from every walk of life end up as mental health patients. My job gives me perspective about my life and my problems.
But I forgot the hope. I have also seen many people over the years journey from this into recovery. I run into them at gas stations, grocery stores, Target and drugstores.
When it happens my heart soars. They come up, usually ecstatic, shaking my hand and saying thanks. It happens about every four or six months.
When I say I love my job I really mean it. I have seen miracles. I believe.
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Wayne Garrett is a psychiatric registered nurse in Duluth.
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