Last week I received a box in the mail from my very dear friend. Inside was a shoe box full of letters that I had written to her over the years. She had saved most of my letters and the time seemed right to return them. You see, most of those letters were written at a time of deep despair and poverty. I was in my early 30s, fleeing across the country seeking a career and a new life. Those letters bring back painful memories, but also underscore my strong desire to survive. Now here I am – 20+ years later. So let me share the story of how a fictional character saved my life.
Did you know suicide is the 10th leading cause of death in America? In the last few weeks we’ve been inundated with news related to the high-profile suicides of fashion designer Kate Spade and celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain. While depression and serious mental health issues are a factor in many suicides, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that in more than half of all deaths, the people had no known mental health condition when they ended their lives. And there’s evidence that shows an increase in suicide rates during economic downturns. When you look at the numbers, suicide should be considered a public health crisis. But all too often, it remains a deeply private and lonely battle.
From the outside looking in, I appear to have my life together. I built a fantastic career and just started my own business. I’ve saved well, which has given me all kinds of options. But it wasn’t always like that. When I turned 30, my life began to unravel, big time. It all started with unemployment, as my job became the victim of state and university budget cuts. And hiring freezes at colleges and universities around the country didn’t help my prospects for academic positions. I never imagined that things would turn out as horribly as they did.
Over the next three years, I moved from California to Arizona to Wisconsin, and finally to Georgia. Eventually I found myself paying cash rent to a friend’s sister to enjoy the luxury of sleeping on a mattress in a cockroach-infested basement. The postmark on those letters simply say “Atlanta, GA.” I had no legal address. And by that time, I could fit all my belongings in a broken-down Honda hatchback.
I remember the cockroaches vividly as I awoke in the middle of the night as they crawled through my hair. The home owner eventually addressed the issue – a subject I gleefully wrote about in a letter dated November 1996: “I spent some time watching my cockroach friends dive into their poisonous pits. I don’t believe in the death penalty, but I’ll gladly make an exception.” I was damn poor. My letters reference my bargain finds of 36 cent burritos and how many days I could make a box of saltines and a jar of peanut butter last. Months passed by without any real job prospects.
During this time, I began to think about and plan my own death on an increasing basis. I just couldn’t see the point of waking up to see another sunrise. My eyes fell into a blank stare and I put a steel wall around my heart. Sure, I was struggling to survive financially, but that was only part of the picture. All of my dreams were dead, or that’s how I felt at the time. Worse, I just couldn’t imagine a way out. Other than my own death.
A battle played out every day in my mind. Death would ease my struggles. But I knew it would hurt my family deeply. I couldn’t do that to them. Not yet. And truthfully, I had a sliver of hope. I still cared about what happened to Brett Favre and the Packers, and they would end up winning the Super Bowl that year. I knew I wasn’t ready to take my life – because I still cared about something. I wrote in my letter, “It is a fight. I don’t quite feel like surrendering yet.”
I’ve always loved reading a good mystery so to escape the realities of my life, I created super sleuth Kate Winston. She was everything I wasn’t. Fit. Self-confident. Successful. Engaging. Sexy. Bad ass. I found myself getting lost writing about her world day after day. Kate became the heroine in a series of stories that I outlined – all involving murders that take place over holidays. Here’s what I wrote:
My sleuth has begun taking me over. For the good. She is the ideal me. Has good qualities, some of mine, some I wish I had. And a few of the bad ones. She is giving me release from this impoverished crazy life. While I give her some of my qualities, I think she has rubbed off on me. I don’t quite understand it. But I am beginning to wonder how she would act under different circumstances. And under my circumstances. She’s a lot more confident than I am. But I am beginning to feel stronger now too.
In a way, Kate Winston led to my new career. I shared the plot with my friend in one of my letters. Kate finds a body dangling from a tree in the Georgia mountains. But when she returns with the local sheriff, the body is gone. She must then tap into her friends in the Atlanta Police Department to assist her off the record. So let me tell you about the big career break that would come my way in 1997. I became a Crime Analyst with the Atlanta Police Department! A year later I found my way into a terrific criminal justice research position in Virginia and would eventually end my career working on court reform. One hell of a journey, and it started out of despair.
I still fight demons, and I think many of us do. I know we can’t always be happy and fulfilled. But I know my dark days will pass and might even lead to something incredible in the long run. Suicide was something that respectable people didn’t talk about 20 years ago. Thankfully, today there are people who are there to help. If you need help, or you know someone who does, visit the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline or call them at 1-800-273-8255.