People Really Do Care

On an undisclosed drawbridge in an undisclosed city at an undisclosed time (for privacy’s sake), the phone rang. It was the harbor patrol, asking me if I would be on the look out for any jumpers on the railing. They were en route to see for themselves. But no one was in sight at that time. The person in question was described as a teenage boy.

I saw the harbor patrol speeding toward my bridge, and wondered what the whole story was. Usually there was only this type of rush if the actual jumper was in sight (which happens more frequently than the general public knows), and in that case, it’s the bridgetender who calls the police, not the other way around.

I waited and worried and continually scanned the sidewalks, as the patrol boat searched the bay in a grid pattern and a half dozen police cars crossed the bridge. They gathered at the south end.

I could think of nothing else, and an hour later, an officer knocked on my door. I let him in, knowing he wanted to look at the camera footage before it disappeared. And that’s when more of the story came out.

The young man had left the house the night before, and a family member went looking for him. He was not answering his phone. That family member came upon his car. It was abandoned just south of the bridge.

But the worst part is that a 50 pound weight was missing from the house, and it was not in the car. When I heard that, my heart sank.

The officer and I scanned the camera footage from the time the young man left his house to the time the car was found, but they saw nothing. After the officer left, I thought, “You know, a jumper with a 50 pound weight would make one helluva splash.”

It was a horrible thought to have, but I wanted to help. I proceeded to scan the cameras that are directed toward the channel that flows under the bridge. I sat there, all alone in the tower, staring at the light playing on the dark water, praying that I would not see anything. That was a very long few hours, in which I was afraid to even blink for fear of missing something. Again, I saw nothing. I knew I’d probably never hear how that story ended.

For the rest of the shift, I could not get out of my mind the horrific idea that that young man was possibly very near me, but just out of reach, while people worried about him. Worst case scenario, he was beyond worry, but his family was distraught, I was heartbroken, and dozens of police officers were frantically trying to find him so they could bring him home.

Then I received an e-mail from a friend of the family, asking me to check my camera footage. Since I write this blog, I’m pretty easy to find. I cried a little as I told her I had already done so, and that I was so very sorry this was happening, and that I was keeping watch on the waterway, and that I hoped he’d be found safe and sound. I also requested that she let me know.

Days later, I saw divers in the channel. That’s never good. And then, one evening while cuddling with my husband in front of the television, I received an e-mail from the boy’s mother. She said his body was found beneath my bridge. She thanked me for keeping him safe. I burst into tears.

I wish I had kept him safe. I wish I could have done something, anything, to prevent this from happening. All I did was sit helpless in my tower, suspecting that my worst fears had been realized, and indeed they were. This young man will be forever in my memory.

Whenever I work the swing shift, I blow the horn at 8pm for the frontline workers who are having to deal with this pandemic. Now I will also be blowing it for this young man and others like him who are struggling to see their value in this precious world of ours. What a horrific loss.

I just wanted to say to anyone who may be reading this who is in despair, that people really do care. You’d be surprised at how many people care. First responders take the jobs that they’ve taken because they care. Total strangers like me who are drawn into the situation care. Family cares.

There are people who can help you. You are not alone. If you are feeling hopeless or helpless, visit the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, or call them at 1-800-273-8255.

You matter. Your life has value. You won’t always feel this way. I promise. Please don’t discard your potential. Stay with us.

Because no picture seemed appropriate for this post…

The Anatomy of a Traumatic Experience

It was an unremarkable day. In retrospect, that was one of the strangest things about it. I was walking across the bridge to get to work, as I’ve done thousands of times. The sun was out. I had no plans, really. Think “status quo.”

And then I saw movement out of the corner of my eye. I turned, just in time to see the guy hit the water. He had jumped off the next bridge over. There was this big splash, and that’s when time stopped for me. I think I will always carry with me a static image of him hitting the water, the splash and the waves it caused frozen in place. Because at that instant I knew he was dead. I knew it just as sure as I’m alive.

Needless to say, I stopped dead in my tracks. I stared at the body with my mouth hanging open. My mind started to bargain. “You didn’t really just see that.” “It’s not a body. Someone must have dropped something big and heavy off the bridge.” “This is not happening.” “No. This can’t be happening.”

Then I saw two boats race out from the rowing club. They tried to drag the body out of the water, but they couldn’t. Then the Harbor Patrol came screaming around the bend in the lake, and they were able to pull him out.

Somewhere along in there I had walked woodenly to the drawbridge tower where I work. (The sequence of events is forever hazy in my mind.) I climbed the stairs. “Did you see that?” I said to my coworker.

“See what?” She had been looking the other way. Time had been moving at a normal pace for her. And then I changed that, probably. She went down and talked to the officers on the scene, and then she left, after urging me to call our supervisor.

I talked to the supervisor for a long time. This is not the first time a bridgetender has witnessed a suicide, and it won’t be the last. She offered to let me have the day off, but I didn’t feel up to the commute. I was already there, and I could be traumatized at work just as easily at I could at home. She also strongly encouraged me to contact our Employee Assistance Program and get some counseling, because this was a big deal.

How right she was. I had never seen anyone die before. I’ve seen dozens of people consider jumping, but then get talked out of it. That’s upsetting enough. I’ve seen a few dead bodies, after the fact. But I’ve never seen anyone die before. It changes you.

I spent the rest of the shift feeling stunned and sad and sick to my stomach. I didn’t accomplish much. I kind of stared off into the middle distance a lot of the time. I thought about the jumper, and was heartbroken that he had felt so much pain and despair that he made that irreversible choice. I was heartbroken for the people who love him. I was upset for all the other witnesses, including the ones at the waterfront restaurant who were expecting to have a lovely salmon lunch, as I have on more than one occasion, and instead got an awful memory.

The weird thing was that I could see that life was going on all around me. Boats were happily floating over the spot, unaware that someone had just died there. People were jogging. Cars hummed their way across the bridge.

The waterway had always been kind of a sacred place for me. Now it had been violated. By the jumper? By the boaters? I don’t know. I’m still trying to figure that one out.

I talked to several people during the course of the shift. My crew chief stopped by. He offered, again, to let me have the day off. He reminded me about the Employee Assistance Program. He told me a few stories about things he’s experienced, and how it made him feel. It was really nice of him to stop by. I kind of felt detached, though.

I also called my sister, who was predictably horrified and sympathetic, and a few friends, who were sorry and tried to be comforting. I even spoke to my therapist. But I felt… it’s hard to explain. I felt like I was in a different reality. A different place, where I couldn’t quite reach them, and they couldn’t quite reach me. I could hear what they were saying, but it was like I was at a high altitude, and my ears had yet to pop. At a remove. Alone.

At the end of the shift I expected to go home and have a really good cry, but the tears never came. As of this writing, they still haven’t come. But I can feel them on the inside.

When I got home, I hugged my dog, and then fell into a deep sleep. I was really afraid I’d have a nightmare and wake up screaming with only my dog to comfort me, but that didn’t happen. I don’t even think I tossed or turned. I barely even wrinkled the sheets. It was like I had been in a coma.

When I woke up, “it” was my first thought. But oddly enough, I felt calm. I felt rested. I was in a good mood. Could I have gotten past this so easily? It felt like I had been given a “get out of jail free” card. What a relief. Tra la la.

Okay, yeah, maybe I’ve gotten past this. Woo! What an adult I am! This is awesome! Just in case, though, I did look into sending a condolence note to the next of kin. I spoke to the Harbor Patrol Chaplain. Naturally, he couldn’t give me a name, but he might be able to forward the note on for me. I thought that would be a nice little bit of closure.

I also spoke to the Employee Assistance Program, and set up some counseling sessions, even though I was feeling great. Way to go for practicing self-care, Barb! I felt really mature and well balanced.

In fact, I spoke to a couple of professionals who thought I was probably over the worst of it. But my therapist told me, cautiously, that I’d probably experience ups and downs for quite some time. There’s a reason she makes the big bucks.

Again, that night, I slept well. I was rested the next day, but a little subdued. Nothing major. Just kind of bleh.

And then that afternoon I started to shake uncontrollably. I wasn’t cold. I was just suddenly overwhelmed. It hit me like a ton of bricks. I had several semi-urgent things on my to-do list, but it was painfully obvious that I was in no shape to deal. I just… I shut down.

I kind of checked in with myself, and what I got was: I’m afraid. I feel out of control. Everything feels so fragile, like a soap bubble. I’m so exhausted that the air feels like the consistency of chocolate pudding. Everything takes more effort than normal. I just want to be left alone.

Which is kind of good because after that first day, most people stopped following up with me. They were over it. It was an awkward conversation. Life goes on. But I still felt, and still feel to this day, that I need someone to hold me while I cry, and that someone can’t seem to be found.

Yes, there’s therapy in my future, and yes, I’ll learn to cope with my new reality. I know this because it’s not the first traumatic thing that’s ever happened to me. I hope it’s the last, but I kind of doubt it. I am also well aware that things are cyclical. I’ll have good days and bad days.

Perhaps it’s the awareness of the cycles of life that have always prevented me from making the horrible choice that the jumper did. No matter how bad things get, even when the loneliness is so bad it’s physically painful, I know that eventually the pendulum shifts in the other direction.

That, and I could never put someone through what that jumper has put the witnesses, the first responders, and his loved ones through. Never. Not ever.

Having said that, though, I hope he has found the peace that seems to have eluded him in life.

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Doing the Right Thing

It happened again the other day. Someone saw me crossing my bridge on the elevated catwalk and called 911, thinking I was a jumper. This always amuses me. Do I look that miserable going to work? Because I’m not. I happen to love my job. But in order to avoid disrupting the traffic while going from my car to the tower (safety first!), I have to take what probably looks like a precarious route from the public’s perspective.

When the 911 operators get a report of this type during our regular shift change, they know to call us first and check. And I always hear all of them laughing when we confirm that it was a false alarm. They are as used to it as we are.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m glad when someone makes that call. You can never be sure. Perhaps it is someone who is planning to do the worst, rather than someone who is just trying to make a living, and that would be tragic beyond words. It’s a good citizen who cares that much about a total stranger.

In the same way, it always amuses me when a cashier apologizes for having to ask for my ID when I use a credit card. I WANT them to care about identity theft! I’m glad that if someone tried to use my card without permission, the buck would stop there, so to speak. Having to whip out my driver’s license is a minor inconvenience compared to having my credit card stolen.

And despite popular sentiment, I don’t mind going through a metal detector. It puts my mind at ease that everyone else around me has done the same thing. It’s the not-so-random searches and the confiscation of nail clippers that bug me.

On the rare occasion in my life when I’ve had to call the police regarding a neighbor’s domestic violence, the perpetrator of this violence never appreciates it, but I suspect that deep down, the victim does. If I ever found myself on the receiving end of a fist, I certainly hope my neighbors would step up in that manner.

So go ahead, folks. Make that call. Ask those awkward questions. Take precautions. It’s better to err on the side of caution. Thanks for caring!

catwalk

Start a gratitude practice today. Read my book. http://amzn.to/2cCHgUu

Sympathy vs. Empathy

The other day I witnessed something awful. I was working on the Fremont Bridge here in Seattle. It’s 30 feet off the water. Right next to it is the Aurora Bridge, which is 170 feet off the water. Before they put up the higher railing on the Aurora Bridge, the only bridge in the world more known for suicides was the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco. Fortunately the higher railing has reduced our statistics dramatically, but some people are extremely determined.

It had been a really good day at work. The end of my shift was fast approaching and I was looking forward to going home. Then I heard the sirens. I looked up, and there, standing on the thin, fragile railing, 170 feet above the canal, was a teenaged boy. He stood there, motionless, as the fire engines and police cars gathered around him. They didn’t get too close. Several officers were trying to talk to him, but he wasn’t acknowledging anyone, as far as I could tell. He just stood there, on the brink of death, gazing off to the horizon.

And I felt like a bug pinned to a display board. I couldn’t move. I couldn’t look away. All I could do is quietly say, “Don’t do it, don’t do it, don’t do it, oh God, please don’t do it.” My heart was pounding. I felt sick. I have never felt so helpless in my entire life.

I’ve been a bridgetender since 2001. This isn’t my first rodeo. But in the past I’ve only experienced the aftermath. I’ve either heard them hit (which is a sound you’ll never forget), or I’ve heard the fire engine race up and them coax the guy down. This time I had a front row seat for the most pivotal moment in someone’s life, and I couldn’t do anything to help.

Then a woman came running up the sidewalk, her arms outstretched. An officer stopped her just short of the boy. He still didn’t move. He stood there for 30 minutes. It felt like an eternity.

Then, thankfully, he decided to climb down. But to do this he had to make a 180 degree turn on that railing and squat down. That was the scariest part for me. I was thinking, “Wouldn’t it suck if he changed his mind and now he accidentally fell?”

Eventually he got down and they were able to get him in the ambulance. They drove away and reopened the bridge to traffic and everything went back to normal. Sort of. But meanwhile I was nauseous from the adrenaline dump. I went home to an empty house and had no one to talk to about it. Oddly I was ravenously hungry, but was so sick I couldn’t eat until the next day, after having had several nightmares.

Post Traumatic Stress. That’s a problem. Because it won’t be the last jumper I witness when I work on this bridge. All my coworkers have seen several. And they say it’s worse when they actually jump, especially when they hit the ground or a building instead of the water. Clearly, I’m going to need some coping skills if I’m going to deal with this on a regular basis.

So I decided to take advantage of my Employee Assistance Program and see a counselor. I had my first appointment yesterday. We talked about suicide and what it means to me personally and what it means in general, and she gave me several things to think about.

She said that some people are in so much emotional pain and feel so out of control that they take the control of the one thing that everyone can potentially control—their death. It’s an awful choice to make, but some people may think it’s the only one they have. Others are under the influence of drugs and are making irrational choices in general and this is just another one of those irrational choices. She also said it was normal for me to feel sympathy for this person’s pain and confusion. That’s a very human reaction.

Then we discussed the difference between sympathy and empathy, because that’s what I clearly have to work on. Here are the definitions:

Sympathy [sim-puh-thee]

noun, plural sympathies.

  1. harmonyoforagreementinfeeling,asbetweenpersonsoronthepartofonepersonwithrespecttoanother.

Empathy [em-puh-thee]

noun

  1. The intellectual identification with or vicarious experiencing of the feelings, thoughts, or attitudes of another.

I have always taken pride in the fact that I’m a fairly empathetic individual. I can put myself into other people’s emotional shoes and act toward them accordingly. This is a skill that not everyone possesses. I get frustrated by insensitive, oblivious people. But it never occurred to me that sometimes empathy is not the best thing to have.

Because, you see, I took that young man’s emotional pain into my body. I mean, I really felt it. And because of that I had to deal with it in the aftermath, kind of like having to expel poison. Not good.

So my homework, probably for the rest of my life, is to learn to not take people’s pain on board. It’s okay to feel sympathy, pity, sadness for that person and what they are going through, but I really need to not take it into my soul. It isn’t mine. It doesn’t belong to me, and I don’t have to take ownership of it. What a concept.

Wish me luck.

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Sunrise, a boat race, and my view of the Aurora Bridge from work.

Contemplating Suicide? What I’d Say to a Jumper

Recently someone I love very much told me that she had attempted suicide a couple of times in the past year. This broke my heart because I had no idea she was suffering in silence. Having struggled with depression my whole life, I know what it’s like to want to throw off that thick blanket of despair, and I know that sometimes it seems like there is only one irreversible way to do so. But that’s the thing. Once you’ve made that choice, you can never make any other choices, ever. How can you be sure there aren’t better times just around the corner?

I can also speak with a little bit of authority on this subject because as a bridgetender I cross paths with people attempting suicide several times a year. I’ve never actually spoken to one of these people. Either the police rescue them before they jump or they make good on their attempt.

I’ve often thought about what I’d say if I came upon a jumper on my bridge and no one else was there. I’m not trained in any way so I’m probably the last person that should be thrust into that situation, and I’d avoid it if I could, but if I had no other choice, what would I do to try to convince them not to take that last irreversible step?

First I’d introduce myself and ask for his or her name. Then I would say, “I don’t know why you’re here, and I don’t know why you want to jump. I’m sure you have your reasons, and they’re none of my business. But I’d like to tell you that this is probably the most important conversation I’ve ever had in my life, because I think you are important in this world. I think you have value. I really believe that every day you impact and influence people and you probably don’t even realize it. Some day, a month, a year, a decade from now, someone will cross your path who will need your influence. If you’re not there to do so, that person may never have the future he or she deserves.”

“I also think that things can change on a dime. You never know what tomorrow will bring. But if you jump, you’ll never get to find out. One thing tomorrow can bring for you is help. Someone to talk to. People who will take you seriously. And they are out there. I promise. We’ll make sure you get a chance to talk to those people, if only you stick around to do so.

“The fact that you’re still listening to me means that you are having second thoughts. That’s good. That means you still have choices. You can still not jump, and then you have a whole world of possibilities. I can tell you this. Every single jumper, without exception, screams on the way down. That means they regret their decision the minute they step into thin air. But by then it’s too late. And that sentiment has been universally confirmed by the rare people who survive jumping off a bridge. They say they wish they had never done it. Can you imagine that feeling of terror? Wanting desperately to take something back but not being able to do so? Would you want that to be the last feeling you have? I don’t want that for you.

“I can also tell you that it’s not as easy a way to go as you might think. See that concrete and wooden fender system down there? I’ve heard jumpers hit that thing, and you can hear their bones break all the way up here. That sound will haunt me for the rest of my life, and now that I know your name, it would be even worse. But even if you miss the fender system it’s bad. Your organs are lighter than your skeleton, so when you hit the water, your skeleton rushes past your organs, forcing them all to move up into your chest cavity. I can’t imagine that type of pain. It’s a horrible, horrible way to go.

“I don’t have all the answers. In fact, my life is pretty messed up. But I really do believe there’s more out there for you than this. You wouldn’t be feeling so hurt or scared or depressed or angry about your situation if you didn’t believe you deserved more, too. Don’t take away your chance to find out what’s out there. Right now you can go in any direction you want. Left, right, forward, backward, up or down. If you jump, all you’ll be left with is down. If you feel like you have no hope now, imagine how you’ll feel when you’ve only got one direction left to go.”

I don’t know. Maybe that would be the wrong thing to say to a jumper. Maybe it would do no good. But that’s what I’d want to say.

looking down

Dumber than a Box of Rocks

This happened on the bridge on my day off. Thank God.

Two bridgetenders were standing on the catwalk outside our tenderhouse when they looked down to the street level and saw a man vault himself over the railing and plunge 40 feet into the rapidly flowing, extremely deep river below. A woman who witnessed this from the sidewalk began to scream. Can you imagine the adrenaline dump?

My coworkers immediately ran out to see if the man popped up to the surface, but saw no sign of him. They called 911, and within minutes there were police cars and ambulances on the scene. There was even a helicopter.

Then they saw the man floating away on a paddle board. Apparently he had paddled to the bridge, stowed the board on the concrete and wooden fender system, climbed up the bridge, then jumped back off. When he was apprehended by the sheriff’s office boat, he denied the whole thing. He was quite smug about it. He even gave the bridgetenders a thumb’s up sign as he paddled away. Witness statements were taken and he was hauled off to jail.

In emergency response alone, he probably cost the city tens of thousands of dollars. These first responders could have been better employed elsewhere in the city, helping people who actually needed them. And this fool was very lucky to survive. If he had hit the fender system on the way down, he’d have broken every bone in his body. Or he could have easily been swept away by the current and drown before anyone could rescue his stupid butt. Or he could have broken his neck on impact or been knocked unconscious and been unable to swim. All of those things happen all the time with jumpers on that bridge.

If he has any brains at all (which is highly questionable) he now realizes that maybe this was not the brilliant plan he originally thought it would be. Then again, sometimes there’s just no antidote for stupid.

main street

Tragedy Between the Lines

When you work on a drawbridge, you’re sometimes a silent witness to some really tragic events. No one tells you that when you take the job.

On the bigger bridges you’ll get jumpers. Occasionally one will survive and 100 percent of those will say they regretted their action the second they jumped, which says a lot about how good an idea it was. Not. And the rest? Many are talked out of taking the leap, fortunately. The ones who actually jump and don’t survive often hit the wooden fender system before they hit the water, and the sound of their breaking bones can be heard in the tender house, as can their screams on the way down. It’s a sound you won’t ever forget. Then the rescue effort becomes one of body recovery. Here in Jacksonville, if the tide is coming in, they’re usually found tangled in the next bridge. If it’s going out, they’re found amongst the rocks at the jetties. Am I getting too graphic? Good. Because I want to impress upon everyone that jumping off a bridge is a bad, bad, BAD idea.

And then there’s the fact that we monitor radio channel 16, which is sort of the marine equivalent of listening to a police scanner. One day I heard a hysterical boater saying “My dog fell off the boat! Does anyone see a Golden Retriever in the water?” Being a dog owner myself, that sent me into a state of helpless anxiety. Fortunately, that story had a happy ending. The dog was recovered.

Another time we bore witness to the unfolding events when a city diver surfaced, only to have his face removed by a passing speedboat. Amazingly he survived, and spent months in the hospital, but I’m sure his life will never be the same.

Why am I in such a morbid mood? Because since Thursday night, the Coast Guard has been making this announcement about once an hour:

“Pan-pan, pan-pan, pan-pan, all stations, all stations, all stations. This is United States Coast Guard Sector Jacksonville Florida, United States Coast Guard Sector Jacksonville Florida. Break. At time 2210 Coordinated Universal Time the Coast Guard received a report of a 55 year old man with no life jacket in the water 360 nautical miles off the coast of St. Augustine, Florida. All vessels are requested to keep a sharp lookout, assist if possible, and report all sightings to the Coast Guard. Signed Commander, United States Coast Guard, Jacksonville Florida. This is United States Coast Guard Sector Jacksonville, Florida out.”

The first time we heard the announcement, we all sat up a little straighter and thought, “Oh my God…” But unfortunately, we usually never hear the end of the story unless it’s on the news. From the Coast Guard website I learned that this guy was a commercial fisherman, out fishing for swordfish on 7 to 9 foot seas. I’m speaking in the past tense, because even though they’re still looking for him, once we all heard the announcement again an hour later, and then throughout the night, and for a couple of days now, we lost hope for him. No life jacket, rough seas, cold and wet. He’s gone, surely. I’m glad the Coast Guard is still looking, though. They do amazing work.

It brings tears to my eyes, because he was just trying to make a living in a very harsh industry, and I’m sure he has people who love him who are suffering greatly right now. His name was Peter Steewell. Please remember him. If what I fear is really true, may he rest in peace.

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