When I was in my early forties, I went to a palm reader just for fun. She stared at the palm of my hand. “I see danger in this hand, many close calls,” she said. “But you are a survivor.”
When I look back at my life now, 30-some years after that palm reader, I see the truth of her prediction: I’ve come close to death more than once. I was in a terrible car crash when I was 19. I nearly died from a rare autoinflammatory illness in 1990. And when I was 21, I survived a suicide attempt.
It was 1969. My parents had run out of money to pay for my education, and I’d run out of patience to deal with my depressed boyfriend and my own inability to choose a major. I dropped out of college and temporarily moved in with my dysfunctional parents. I had no idea what I wanted to do with my life except to be in charge of my own self. I dropped the sad boyfriend and moved into a tiny one-bedroom apartment as soon as I could afford it. Most of my friends were still away at school. I was lonely and often depressed. I started seeing a psychiatrist. He wasn’t much help.
Then I met Rainier. He was 26, separated from his wife, and the boyfriend of my one and only friend in Milwaukee, Lisa. The first time I was in his presence, alone with him in Lisa’s parents’ living room while Lisa was in the kitchen with her mother, he said to me, “You think no one sees you, but I do. You’re lonely. I understand you.” He was handsome, a sociology TA with a German accent and a killer smile. I was hooked.
A month later, at around 1 a.m., he knocked on my first-floor bedroom window. The knocking woke me out of a sound sleep but when I opened my eyes and saw Rainier at my window, I was instantly awake. I’d known something like this was likely to happen because of how he’d looked at me when we met. And here he was: This handsome older man, a Ph.D. student with a sophisticated accent, wearing knee-high black boots and a cape, was choosing me. The thought of Lisa didn’t cross my mind.
I let him in. He told me he needed my advice: He was very attracted to me, but he also loved Lisa, and he didn’t want to hurt her. It wasn’t long before he kissed me and seconds later, we were in bed.
In the beginning, I was thrilled by Rainier’s attention. He provided the only pleasure in my empty existence. He paid attention to me and said he loved my poetry. He told me I was extraordinary and beautiful. No one had ever said anything like that to me before.
After about a year of staying awake late hoping for Rainier’s knock on my window, hiding these secret meetings from Lisa, I realized I needed to let go of Rainier. Seeing him made me feel cheap and dishonest. He was a quasi-married man who was also my friend’s lover. Our relationship had no future; it didn’t offer me anything deeper than illicit sex. I knew I deserved better. I was violating my own values, and I judged myself harshly for that.
But every time Rainier showed up at my window after midnight, I let him in again and then overslept the next morning and got to work late, endangering my job. Even though my job was deadly boring—I was a proofreader in the advertising department of a company that made giant manufacturing gears—I couldn’t afford to lose it.
I couldn’t seem to break up with Rainier. It was like I was under some kind of evil spell. I couldn’t say the necessary words. When I told my psychiatrist how upset I was about being unable to let go of Rainier, he called me promiscuous. He called Rainier a narcissist. He told me I was sick, and I believed him.One sad night, I reached a breaking point. I drank a bottle of Muscatel and followed it with a handful of Tylenol with codeine pills left over from a root canal. Then I wrote an emotional, very long suicide note addressed to Lisa.
Rainier knocked on my window at 2 a.m. I told him about the wine and pills. Any normal person would have rushed me to the ER. Rainier picked up the pill bottle and threw it across the room. Then he pulled me down on the couch and wrapped his arms around me and we fell deeply asleep together. In the morning—thank goodness the pills weren’t strong enough to kill me—he made me promise to never do that again. I agreed although I didn’t mean it. It wasn’t until a day later that I realized the danger I’d put myself in and how lucky I was to have survived. I never really wanted to die. I just wanted the pain to end. The loneliness, the depression, and my own battered self-esteem that my psychiatrist had labeled an illness.
Rainier came to me one last time the night before he left town. He needed a place to sleep and no one else would let him in. I let him in. There was no sex. There was no goodbye. He was gone by morning. Within a couple of weeks, I felt enormous relief. It was over. I was safe.
I began to rebuild myself. I learned to be kinder and gentler with myself, learned to turn away from things (people) that undermined me. I quit my boring job, got a better one, and went back to college. And I fired my psychiatrist. He’d been worse than useless except in one way: He showed me how not to be a therapist, and when I started my own career as one, I made it my mission to never ever be anything like him.
If you or someone you love is contemplating suicide, seek help immediately. For help 24/7 dial 988 for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, or reach out to the Crisis Text Line by texting TALK to 741741. To find a therapist near you, visit the Psychology Today Therapy Directory.