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.