What seeing a suicide taught me about sleep
I was driving up to Montreal on a college tour adventure with my sons. We had skied all day and were tired, finding a room in the only dog friendly hotel available in Albany felt like good luck. The boys were bickering about who got the floor. A good time party rolled on down the hall studded with cardboard doors. It was a restless night of sleep.
My dog Zoe woke me at about 6:30am. I closed the black out blinds and hoped the boys would sleep in a bit. My eldest son was doing his first highway driving that morning and I wanted to ensure he was well rested. I pulled open my Strava app and searched for nearby run locations. It was very cold, the kind of cold that gets inside your nose and makes it feel crunchy. But I love exploring new places in the quiet of the morning and the rhythm of my breath.
Zoe and I drove over to the run start, a little dirt parking lot adjacent to the reservoir. The sign stated it wasn’t open until 8am. A car pulled in behind me and loitered in an odd way. The man didn’t park. Just stayed at the opening of the dirt lot. I could see the path, but as any female runner knows, listening to a vibe can be a lifesaving skill. I kept the car on and began searching the internet for an alternate run route. Oh, and I locked my doors.
While my focus was on my phone, another car pulled into the lot. I looked up when I heard his door slam and noticed my creeper car had also properly parked but not gotten out of the vehicle. I watched the new arrival’s back as he retrieved something from his trunk and set off toward the water. A fourth car pulled in and the couple seemed to be arguing. I felt safer with the growing humanity. I silently encouraged myself, “Stop putting this off! Look at that guy! Park and go!” I got the leash organized, threw on my hat and gloves and set off to create my own heat.
At the top of the path that circled the water, I let the dog choose our direction. Zoe went to the right and we began to jog. As I approached the covered picnic area ahead I began reprimanding myself: “Check him out! Already doing plyometric jumps!” And then, “I’m going to congratulate him and cheer him on.” When I began to focus and move toward him my mind struggled to organize my shattered thoughts. My body already knew. I had frozen in position. I believe I even still held an encouraging coach’s smile on my face. But how to process the image? There was no picnic table below his feet. He was no longer jumping. He was hanging and gently moving in the wind.
I began to moan and yell. The animal sounds of despair and recognition, loss and understanding. Somehow from the woods behind the gazebo there materialized a man. He had heard me. I pointed and he ran. I was screaming, “Pick up his feet! Hold his feet!” The man from the woods just turned slowly toward me and shook his head forlornly. He didn’t even touch him. I could see in the set of his shoulders, it was too late. As he approached me, he said, “It was over.” I had dialed 911 as the man was running to his feet. I was on the call with no answers. I didn’t know where I was, who he was, what had happened. My local savior from the woodlands filled in the blanks. When I hung up the phone we began the process of trying to fit ourselves into this tragedy. The local man had passed the young victim as he approached the gazebo. He regretted not saying hello. He saw him up there “monkeying around” in the rafters and thought he was stealing the wiring so left him alone. I turned toward the lake and wished his soul good travel and an end to his suffering. I kept saying, “It’s so sad. It’s so sad.” The truth of my mantra was an anchor for my experience.
As we walked back to the parking lot, the local man moved toward the arriving emergency vehicles. My dog and I watched from the car as the units responded. Twenty humans who, like me, arrived too late to make a difference in the final chapter of this man’s life. I was so sad, I was praying for his spirit to travel safely. I was sending gratitude to the local man who walked into the circle of death, sparing me the vision. I called my sister as I drove back to my sleeping children at the hotel. I cried and talked it out. I felt helpless in the face of his suicide. I began to imagine the victim’s own mother or wife at her front door hearing the news.
Later, as I was watching my son navigate the highway north, vacillating between over confident and intimidated, my brain continued to loop back. What if I hadn’t procrastinated? What if I had been on the trail to meet him with a smile? I felt so lucky to have healthy boys with me. I was keenly aware of the privilege of my life.
That night as we all settled in for sleep in the Airbnb. My eyes would float closed and then pop open. It seems the instant replay of the trauma was written on the back of my eyelids. I began doing deep yogic breath work. I eventually slept for a chunk of time. But then would surface enough to be conscious of danger. When I emerged fully from sleep, I would realize the danger wasn’t in this room, but in my memories. In the soft dawn light I finally began researching hypnotists in New York City. I have no idea where the idea took hold. I’d never been to a hypnotist in my life. Probably if you had asked me before that time I would have decried it as hocus pocus. I just knew it would help. So I made an appointment immediately after my return. Then Zoe and I went for a run along the bitter cold quay.
My hypnotist was a regular looking man until he opened his mouth and I wondered if he was from Transylvania. He had a thick accent in a deep baritone. I had written a sketch of my trauma story before my arrival. As we settled into chairs he asked, “When did the event occur?” I replied, “I guess it’s been six days?” He was shocked and dismayed. “Oh!” he said, “Too bad you went to bed! If only I could have spoken with you then, I would have asked you to stay awake for 48 hours.” He went on to explain that we now know short term memories are stored during the sleep cycles immediately following an event. Want to do well on the quiz? Get a good night’s sleep after the lecture. That is when we move the information from short term memory to deep storage. When our brain fits together the new information with what we have already learned in our life. If the stress hormones are high around an event, it is stored with easy access; hardwired to the nervous system. Like the first time we test out what is meant by the word ‘hot’ in relation to the stovetop. I had slept my way into a fixed impression of the trauma of the event I witnessed. He went on to explain that in Europe, where he was a board certified MD, it is common to recommend that victims of trauma stay awake for the first 48 hours to prevent this download.
We spent an hour reframing my experience. What could I have realistically done? I worked to forgive myself for not getting there in time to stop his departure. I overwrote the recurring image of his feet swaying in the wind. We laughed about the joke: it’s always the runners who find them. We made the event human. I grieved for this man I never knew and released his spirit.
As I walked away I was humming. My hands were shaking and my mind felt soft. I was wrung out but felt alive in a new sharply focused way. I happened to run into an old friend at lunch. We hadn’t been in touch for twenty years, yet there he was. We had been actors together. His super power on stage was his ability to listen. I found his kind ear turned toward my tale. I spoke of the event: from the horrible beginning until the moment I’d left the hypnotist’s office down the block. The retelling began a true healing. As I closed my story and we sat for a moment in comfortable silence I began to realize my purpose for participating. I didn’t know the victim’s name, nor any of his motivation. I wasn’t there to deter him from his intention. I was meant to watch and learn. The universe offered me a powerful lesson. What I see is part of my intake. What I take in, I process and attempt to categorize based on my previous information. High stress experiences that don’t align with my current framework rewire not only my brain but also my whole nervous system. Sleep is the gateway. In sleep I write the map to my point of view of the world. My mind must participate as a cartographer. I must make sense of waking reality with professional help, a good friend and conscious intention.
“To die, to sleep;
To sleep, perchance to dream — ay there’s the rub:
For in that sleep of death what dreams may come,
When we have shuffled off this mortal coil,
Must give us pause — there’s the respect
That makes calamity of so long life.”