Friday, March 16, 2007

Hanging in the Balance

Earlier this evening, while on my way to meet a group of girlfriends for dinner, I had a telephone call from one of my former students. She's all grown up now, and in her first year of teaching in a special education classroom. She's been calling me regularly for the past several months, telling me how her teaching experience was going (not well), her progress toward buying a condo (not well), her relationship with her younger sister and mother (not well).

A couple of weeks ago, she called while I was just about to go into rehearsal. "Liz," I said, "I can't talk right now. I'll call you later, OK?"

"Sure," she said, and I hung up the phone.

Well, I forgot to call her back~you know how it goes, life gets crazy, and you sometimes put off those conversations that you know are going to demand a lot of emotional energy. Tonight, when I saw her number on my caller ID, I was tempted to let her go to voice mail. I was within 10 minutes of my destination, and really ready to have a fun night out. But my conscience got the better of me. "Hi, Liz!" I said brightly. "How are you doing, honey?"

"Not so good," she said. "I've just been really overwhelmed with school and everything....and...a couple of weeks ago I tried to hurt myself...really badly. I've been in the hospital for the last 10 days. And I'm...well, I'm just reaching out right now to anybody who might care about me."

Oh. My. God. Obviously, I feel like the worst possible person in the whole world for letting this girl down (the night she did this was the night that I told her I didn't have time to talk to her!!!).
But I also feel completely inadequate to help her~what do I say? what do I do? Is it enough just to listen, to be sympathetic, to try and make her feel important and cared about? I know, I'm not a therapist, but, my control freak, over-responsibility factors have gone into overdrive. "Fix it!" they're screaming in my ear. "Make it all better! You have to!"

Of course, this all makes me recall with utter clarity the suicide of a student that occurred just last year. Another gifted young man, who felt overwhelmed by this world, and unable to measure up to it's demands. As I was talking to Liz tonight, one of the first things she said to me was, "I know this is all my fault." It was her "fault" that she couldn't handle the pressure of dealing with 18 autistic teenagers in a classroom with one aide, her "fault" that the condo she was trying to buy had structural defects the sellers were attempting to hide, her "fault" that her mother was totally unsupportive of her efforts toward independence, her "fault" that she was only 23 years old and new to the world of adult life and responsibility.

One of the best things age has given me is the ability to know how things can change. Even 24 hours can make a difference in the way you feel. Young people find that so difficult to believe, because they just haven't seen it happen enough. Whatever they're feeling now, is the way they're going to feel forever. Today's tragedy, today's failure, seems so insurmountable, because they have so little experience of the happiness and success that tomorrow could bring.

I'm meeting Liz for dinner on Monday night. I think I'll be meeting Liz for dinner as often as I can for a while. I don't know what I can say that might make life seem a little more liveable to her ~ I hope just having someone show up and listen will help. I do know the world can't afford to lose any more talented, caring, intelligent young people. We need all of them we can get.



Blogger Tammy said...

That's so tragic Becca! I'm so glad she has you :) XXOO

Blogger Tori said...

Please do not feel bad for not returning Liz's initial call.
It is great that she is reaching out with honesty to you know and that you are accepting it graciously. She is so lucky to have you. From someone who was blessed by teachers that cared above and beyond...thank you.
And..don't forget to take care you you in the process of reaching out to others.

Blogger Star said...

I'm glad she can turn to you for guidance, just make sure you are not the only one she is relying on. She needs to know that all is not lost if she cannot get in touch with you.

I think young people are ill prepared for being independent. We try to give them the training they need to get a job or balance a checkbook but we don't introduce them to coping skills or reassure them that just because they have graduated from high school or college, they are not expected to handle everything life serves up on their own. They feel that if they can't do it all by themselves that they are failures or worthless.

Drop kick the "what ifs" about not having spoken with her longer on her first call. Each of us has a life to live and we cannot second guess decision already made. As you said, as the years go by we gain more experience and knowledge to draw upon as we face more of life's challenges. You've done that already by reaching out to her through phone conversations and dinners together.

And, as Tori has already commented, be sure to take care of yourself as well. It is easy to take on full responsibility for another when you care so much--be her friend, but don't be her saviour. You are a tenderhearted woman of great compassion and I'm proud to "know" you.

Blogger Becca said...

Thank you all for your wise words and support..I love having the wealth of experience, wisdom, and viewpoints available to me through this community of bloggers. It is a true gift :)

Blogger GreenishLady said...

Becca, the others have said what I would have said (and better) Take their advice about taking care of yourself too, and know that your presence (even your honest response that you couldn't talk that night) is what that girl needs. When I say 'presence' I don't mean necessarily always being physically there for her, but always being concerned for and aware of her and on her side. This is what maybe isn't available in her other relationships, and it's what's important. She is so blessed to have you in her life.

Anonymous bella said...

My goodness Becca.. that is scary. I guess the only thing you can do is be there for her and be her friend. But remember, you can't fix her. You can give her encouragement, you can love her and inspire her, but she really needs professional help.
I'm so sorry for your friend Liz (my real name). I hope she finds peace. I hope everything turns out well for her. There is another path she could take, I hope she takes that turn on her road.

Blogger Jane Poe (aka Deborah) said...

What an intense experience, Becca. I've been there with someone & I can tell you showing up, listening, sharing another perspective does wonders. You may not be able to "fix" her, but you can throw out that lifeline of friendship and connection to another experience. As Tori said, it's important to take care of yourself when dealing with someone who is going through a traumatic experience (just be aware the vicarious trauma can creep in, especially if we start to feel responsible for someone's well-being.) Much peace & love to you, Deborah

Blogger jzr said...

As a control nut and "fixer" myself, I can tell you that you can't control it and you can't fix it. It is a horrible feeling to watch someone you care about go through the traumas of life, but they are their traumas and we too often want to step in and take on the trauma ourselves. You can be a good listener, you can be a shoulder for her to cry on if you are aware of which issues are yours and which belong to her. And yes, taking care of yourself is critical.

At the age of 64, I have difficulty taking on this world we live in. How can a 23 year old be prepared and stay sane? I wish I knew. We can never prepare our children for what they will be faced with, particularly in the environment we live in today. There are too many "terrors" out there for most of us to face and I'm not just talking about the terrorists that carry bombs in their backpacks.

Blogger Shaz said...

I have experienced a similar situation and to this day I continue to support this person.
Just listening and showing her you care is all she needs and all you can offer. You don't have to be a professional to give her what she needs and that's LOVE.

Guilt on your part honey wont help you or help her.
You cant always be there so give only what you can and except you had no control and forgive what you cant change.
Hugs Becca xx

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Wow! What a poignant and heartbreaking story.
You sound like a wonderful and supportive person. How could you possibly know this was going to happen?
Reminds me of this quote..."You may be just one person in the world, but you may be the world to one person."

Blogger paris parfait said...

Amen, amen and amen. How wonderful that you are helping her, even if it's just by "showing up" and "listening." Sometimes that's more valuable than solid gold. xo


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