From the time she was a toddler, Emily had absolutely no fear. Fear gets a bad rap, but it does wonders toward self-preservation. Nothing scared Emily, though. I imagine this is how she managed to climb the chain link fence and hurl herself off of a bridge on a predawn January morning. I’d like to believe the alcohol and crack cocaine in her system prevented her from feeling the pain from the impact with the highway below.
Emily was discharged from an inpatient unit for psychiatric and substance abuse treatment 5 days before she took her life. It was on my birthday, January 10th. I got a message from her wishing me a happy birthday. She didn’t mention she’d just gotten out of the hospital. Love you, Sis, I’d responded. It was the last time we ever spoke. Five days later, my brother sent me a message:
I have some very difficult news about Emily
Emily had been pulled from a different bridge during a suicide attempt the previous month. She was climbing the chain link fence erected to prevent people from jumping. Someone saw her and wrestled her down while the police were called. She was brought to the ER, transferred to an inpatient unit in Boston, and discharged shortly before I saw her on Christmas. I didn’t know any of this at the time. Christmas brunch at my house is a time to catch up with family, gorge on holiday food, and do a Yankee swap. Not to discuss Emily’s problems. I was blissfully unaware that 2018 would be her last Christmas.
Well-versed in the nuances of Massachusetts mental health law, Emily signed a 3-day notice and was discharged before she’d completely detoxed from the alcohol and cocaine in her system. She wasn’t psychotic and denied being suicidal. She’d been in the hospital countless times and had never killed herself before. And, unlike many people spinning in the revolving door of inpatient psych units, Emily had an apartment, a part-time job, and a devoted fiancé.
My idealistic side struggles with the idea that Emily’s tragic death was inevitable. The cynic knows better. Our father committed suicide when Emily was an infant. She started drinking, using, and getting into trouble in her early teens. She was in and out of placements and treatment programs all her life. She had a long arrest record I only learned about after her death. It included everything from shoplifting to prostitution, to assault and battery.
Emily had lived with Russ for six years. He loved her deeply and unconditionally. Even when she was drunk and hurling profanities at him. Even through the relapses that began with a drink at Christmas brunch and stretched into weeklong benders. When Russ was on the road for his trucking business, he’d have the police do wellness checks to make sure Emily hadn’t overdosed. The officer who responded to the reports of a body in the breakdown lane that morning in January already knew who to call.
I know better than to believe that I could have prevented Emily’s suicide, but I still racked my brain for clues I might have missed. It turns out the clues were glaringly obvious. I just hadn’t been looking. And even if I had, it wouldn’t have changed the outcome.