My life began on the day I tried to end it.
I was 39 years old and had recently moved to Virginia. They say sometimes you don't realize what a mess your life has become, until you are out of the mess. That was me.
In the years that preceded that fateful day I had become pregnant with my then boyfriend's child. I was already a single mom with four children from a previous marriage. That failed marriage had left me with no other choice than to move back in with my parents, and my relationship with my mother had never been healthy. I had received a much fought for promotion at my job but that required more hours away from my children. I was struggling in the balance, or lack of it. I eventually made my boyfriend my husband and became a step-mother to two more children. With the baby on the way, that made us a family of 9. We moved from Texas to Virginia a week after that baby turned a year old. I didn't realize it then, but depression has already taken a firm grip on my life. I thought it was just the stress of the move. Little did I know.
I was thankful that I was able to transfer to another store in Virginia. But shortly after I arrived it became clear that while I was still working for the same company by name, the culture at my new store was very different. My new manager seemed threatened by me. She did not share the company's vision for my position, nor did she recognize me as a vital member of the management team. I would soon discover that she had lied to the previous manager about the budget, and had been misappropriating funds to finance other programs. Confronting her on that matter took things from bad to worse. I had loved my job in Texas. I was successful, respected. It was the only place that I was simply known for who I was. It had nothing to do with whose daughter I was, whose wife, whose mother. And though I valued all of those roles, having an outlet for authentic expression was important to me. Now, even that was taken from me and thus began the downward spiral.
I had panic attacks in my late teens and a few in my early twenties but I'm not sure I even realized that was what was happening. But after moving to Virginia they became a regular occurrence. I realized shortly before we moved that something wasn't right. I thought maybe it was postpartum depression, and looking back, I'm sure that was part of it. No one survives the childhood I lived, finds themselves a single mom, pregnant and unmarried, gets married and takes on two more kids, gives birth to yet another and moves and changes jobs a year later without falling victim to a bit of stress. At least, that was what my counselor had said. She prescribed a mild anti-depressant. It never really helped much, but at the very least, it made me too drugged to care.
By the time I dropped my daughter off at daycare and drove up to my favorite overlook on the mountain that day, I had been on that medication for over a year. By then it felt like I was eating candy, so I threw Benadryl into the mix, and chased it with wine to give it a boost. But the panic attacks kept coming. That morning I had the worst I'd ever experienced. It wasn't a stretch for me to believe that it wasn't worth fighting this battle anymore. I'd been trying to be "good enough" for someone since the day I was born. Yes, I loved my children, especially my baby girl, but that day I convinced myself that I was a failure and would fail again. The words ran on repeat through my mind. "She is better off without you."
My memories of that morning are pretty foggy. To this day I don't know how I drove her safely to daycare, much less how I ended up on the mountain. It makes sense though. Then as now, they have always been my sanctuary. My first clear memory is of pulling into the overlook, my favorite one. I had refilled my prescription for my meds the day before and came equipped with a full bottle of chardonnay. That's the last thing I remember before I saw his face. One minute I was looking at the bottle of pills and the wine in the console, and the next, he was there.
"Can you tell me your name?" He was digging through the vehicle now, I guess looking for my purse. But no matter, I was speaking, I answered all of his questions, told him everything he needed to know. "Stay awake, I need you to stay awake", he said. He told me an ambulance was on the way. I could hear the sirens in the distance, but it's a long way up that mountain, so he did his best to keep me talking.
In the ambulance it was more of the same, "What is your name? Do you know what day it is? I need you to keep talking." I looked down and realized someone had started an IV. I'm terrified of IV's because of a bad experience during my first delivery. I hadn't even felt them put the needle in. It would be a decade later before I realized what I saw next. On the day I called an ambulance for my mother. As I watched them lift her in, I was astonished by the cramped quarters and the single paramedic that accompanied her. I sought him out at the hospital and asked, "Are all ambulances set up the same as yours?", I asked. "Yes, pretty much", he answered. "And is there typically only one other person in the back with the patient?" I asked. "Uhm, usually, sometimes two. But most of the time it's just me and the driver." But that wasn't the case on the day the ambulance took me down that mountain. Yes, there was only one person speaking to me, but there were twelve others there with us that day. That sat around me, four on each side and four at my feet on a bench that I realize now doesn't even exist. Some will claim it was just the drugs, but I know better. My other memories are too clear. I was able to recount conversations and other things that took place that day to both the paramedic and the park ranger who found me. They were all just as I recalled. So why would this one memory be any different? For me, there is only one explanation. I was surrounded that day, on every side, by angels.
I came through. In spite of my best efforts to the contrary, I lived. The park ranger stayed with me until my husband arrived. He came the next morning to see me again. "I was talking to a dead woman." he said, "You are a walking miracle. You shouldn't have been coherent, but you were. You answered all my questions. You shouldn't be alive" And then he broke down and cried. We both did. I later learned that he had been patrolling an area miles on the other side of the parkway when he suddenly had a vision of the overlook where I was at and he knew something bad was happening. Gene Parker saved my life.
It feels odd to live in the aftermath of knowing that a power greater than you could ever fathom literally reached out and snatched you from the grips of death, but there is no other explanation. Like Gene said, I shouldn't be alive. I wish I could tell you that it was easy. That I was miraculously healed from the pain, delivered from the demons that had I came to realize had haunted me all of my life. But it wasn't. It was hard. The hardest fight I have ever fought. It meant retracing memories from my life that I had buried in an effort to forget. It meant walking away from relationships and people that I loved, that I still love, but that were not good for me. The voices didn't stop immediately. There were days, so-many-days when once again I heard, "They would be better off without you." But I wouldn't test fate again. For reasons I am still discovering, there was and remains a purpose for my life. A purpose far beyond even what I understand. Just as there is for each of us.
Gene Parker died from stomach cancer in 2008. I went home for a couple of years to take care of my mom before she passed away, but I returned to this peaceful little valley a little over a year ago. I drove to that overlook within the first forty eight hours after I arrived. October 11 will mark 18 years since that fateful day. The mountains remain my sanctuary. Three weeks ago I returned from my first hike on the Appalachian Trail. Now I'm giving serious consideration to a thru-hike. I walk in these mountains weekly, averaging 15-20 miles each week. The distance isn't significant, but it's not able the miles I walk, it's that I still am. They are the best therapy and anti-depressant I know. I no longer have a need for any other. I leave it all on the trail and it fills me back up. I am at peace, content, happy and alive. I think Gene would be proud. That's the goal, anyway.
"With folded hands and bruised knees, I build cathedrals of these ruins." - Tricia Sarmiento