0147: Fight to Survive

Content warning: The following story contains references to suicide and depression, which may be triggering for some readers.

"Fight to Survive," Jenn Mitchell

Working in Higher Education, and then working in Residential Life one’s largest fear is losing a student.. For me, my biggest fear was having one of my students commit suicide and having to finding them. On October 18th, 2016 my biggest fear was my reality.

We all know one phone call can change your life, your Grandma on the other end of the phone sobbing that her husband your Grandpa had died, but you’re the only one home. The phone call from home when you’re in college that an accident had taken someone else close to you. On October 18th the phone call that came was from my Director, and I had no idea how it would change every single aspect of my life and how it’s still changing my life on a daily basis.

I worked in Residential Life and Housing at a small private liberal arts institution overseeing 4 buildings, 48 apartments and 24 small houses, at this point I couldn’t even tell you how many students that was. I was loving the job that I did, in being there two years with whispers of job changes on the way I was excited for the future. I had gotten married that summer, we were living on, it wasn’t terrible.

On October 18th the phone call came in, can you check on this student.. If they don’t answer do not key into the room. As an area coordinator we got those calls often, can you check in with this student make sure they are okay, have them call home.. This call was different with 10 words added, If they don’t answer do not key into the room. It was a fight or flight situation, I got up from my desk, locked my office door went straight to the elevator and went to the floor, my worst fears were quickly in my stomach, which was really in my throat as I knocked on that door. I knocked again, and there was no answer. I get chills knowing that there was no answer still to this day. I called my Director back, he told me again don’t key in Security will be there in a minute to go with you. Security was half way down the hall when I keyed in because I physically could not wait any longer. I opened that door praying it was an empty room, it wasn’t. It was far too late.

Since I was 14 I’ve been in the fire department working structure fires, ems calls, car accidents any emergency you could think of. Going into those calls, I was always prepared. In the trucks, in my head I always prepared myself for the worst. I was 25 and for the first time keying into that room I let my guard down and forgot everything I had learned in preparing myself for the worst. I did not forget my training as I yelled the name, when the officer asked me to wake them up.. I told him they were gone, I checked for a pulse first in the foot, then on the neck. I knew they were gone before checking for a pulse. The student was cold and a shade of purple that I had seen in my life, almost memorizing, looking back on it, that image will never fade from my mind.

The hours following were a blur, I remember some of it. I have a document that I sat down and wrote with every single detail in the days following the 18th because I knew my brain would start to erase details that I had seen to try to protect itself. In the last few days of trying to write this, I read it. It was the first time since I wrote it that I had read it. In some senses due to my mental health now, it was empowering, in other ways it was still move life changing and I’m not sure how I have lived through it.

From October through December I was so numb I got up went to work did my job checked on everyone else and made sure everyone else was okay. That was the person that I had always been, everyone else’s rock. Yet I turned my back on myself, when even my wife was pushing me to get help and stop trying to help others. I pushed everyone away. In January everything shifted drastically, from things that that institution did to me to try to “help me” to my personal life being turned completely upside down.  I felt as if I had no one. From October through December I slept 1-3 hours a night max, by the time January hit and I started feeling again I could sleep 16-18 hours without even trying. I didn’t know what this was but I knew I needed help and sought out a psychologist. I had no idea that I was suffering from severe PTSD, Depression and Anxiety because I was so stubborn that I refused to know that I was suffering from these things. I knew I had some symptoms but I brushed those off. (Note I am leaving out how the institution or how anyone at the institution treated me, helped or didn’t help me to not only protect myself but also them) I will say in January a few meetings that happened at the institution that send me into a downward spiral.

Asking for help is not something that I’ve done often or maybe even ever. I now have been carrying around a burden that no one can understand within me. I have pushed most everyone who cares about me away including my wife, I have made some terrible choices and I have no excuse for those.

It seems as if I woke up one day in January alone, needing help because I knew it was only going it get worse if I didn’t get it. I started seeing a psychologist once a week, people who know me, know that I don’t open up to others. Normally I get a tattoo to feel the pain of what I am going through and I move on, but with this I couldn’t move on. I can’t move on. No matter how hard I try, most days it is as if the darkness has captured me. Yet I get up, I go to work, I mask everything that I feel, I complete my tasks and most of my new co-workers have no idea that I’m suffering with these three things that feel like most days I will not survive from. I live every day fighting to live, fighting to breathe, because one student couldn’t do it anymore, couldn’t fight anymore. The worst part now is I completely understand, I’m not angry that, that student took their life, I understand. Where does the support come from, how do you build a support network when you can so easily wear a mask that no one can see through, and let’s be real how the hell do you build a support network when no one has any interest in talking about mental health and how fucked up it makes you feel.

Fighting to find anti-depressants that don’t make you want to kill yourself more than you already do, having your doctor give you anxiety medicine but says to you, don’t take it too often because it is addicting. I’m fighting, I’m still here fighting, feeling as though I’m letting everyone down. Yet it all started because one student couldn’t do it anymore, and it seems as if… some days it has put me in the same position. They say that the darkness will lift, some medicine will work, I’ll be okay.. But honestly I don’t believe that, right now I believe I will fight to survive every day for the rest of my life all because of one phone call making me the person. October 18th 2016 has changed every single aspect of me, and of my life, it has made it a fight. 

About the art:

Jenn came forward with this powerful story months ago and we delayed releasing it for when we were ready to fully start accepting stories again. So here is the fairly simple, yet dynamic, splatter piece I made for Jenn. The context of the story focusing around fighting every day to survive was important for me to capture. So I included it here in this piece and I'm glad she likes it!

- Craig