How could my world be crumbling around me? I was 24, dressed for court, holding a sick baby in my arms, her hair wet from the tears rolling down my cheek. I finally reached the clerk of the court and she transferred me to the judge. I started to explain about my sick child and my inability to be in court that day. He interrupted me abruptly.
“It doesn’t matter. Your husband tried to hang himself this morning. He’s been transferred to the mental hospital.”
I hung up the phone and eased into the chair by the phone. This cannot be happening. All I could think to do was to call my dad at work. He was always there for me, even when he felt I was making the biggest mistakes in my life.
Factories. If you have never worked in one it is hard to understand. Every minute means money. You do everything by the bell, just like cattle. No way anyone was allowed to come to the phone for a personal call. I dialed the number. The woman that answered the call was rude. I asked to speak to my father. She said no. I told her it was an emergency. She asked what kind of emergency. I told her there was an attempted suicide, all while still holding my sick baby in my arms. Finally, she gave in and said she would find him and have him call me.
I was sick to my stomach realizing my father would have no context when he got that message. I was crying when I answered the phone. He was frantic. After hearing the story, he told me he was coming home. I was a wreck. I knew his heart broke for me, even though he disagreed about my earlier decision to marry.
My parents met Winifred and Bill (Wilhelmina) while camping in the Smokies. They had been lifelong friends and remained so even after my mother passed away and my father remarried. Winifred worked at the state mental hospital for years, so it was logical for my dad to call him. After a lengthy conversation, it was decided we would wait until morning, then call about visitation. It would give us some time for my daughter to recover and for us to calm our nerves. It had been such a difficult day.
The hospital comes into sight as you approach from the interstate. It sits high on a hill – known as asylum hill by those who live nearby. Walking onto the property was surreal. My anxiety was high considering all the stories I had heard from Winifred over the years and knowing that somewhere in that old brick building my husband was incarcerated. I was young, naive, and ignorant about mental illness. I was wary of everyone and was quite unnerved by every person I encountered. Luckily, my father was with me. The details have settled into a soft blur over the years.
After providing identification and getting a short briefing, we were taken into a small room to wait for my husband. He was escorted in by a male nurse, tall and burly, all dressed in white. I have no idea what my husband was wearing. His demeanor was less cavalier than normal as he explained what a difficult evening he had at the hospital.
From what I remember, he said tried to hang himself with a bedsheet. This is where I must tell you what a charming manipulator he was. I was suspicious the stunt was an attempt to avoid the judge. He had no intention of hurting himself. That being said, I realize the gravity of the desperation that pushes some people to take this step – it was just not the case with him. Even the officers in the county jail believed as I did. It was an act, a stunt, to gain sympathy. It backfired on him. The judge was intent on teaching him a lesson.
His first night at the hospital had been difficult. Given the fact that he was admitted as an attempted suicide, he was required to sleep on a bare mattress – no sheets or blankets or pillows – and he could not wear any clothes. Nothing he could use to harm himself. It must have been a miserable night but it would not be his only night there. He remained there for a period of time before being transferred back to the county jail.
Some people are born with that magnetic personality that just pulls you in. That was my husband. It did not take long for him to gain the favor of those who guarded and cared for him – after all he was still incarcerated.
Time passed, he was released back to the county and we eventually went to court. We were in court because we purchased furniture from a sweet man (Mr. J) that financed it for us and my husband was fired from his job (he had at least 10 different jobs that year), sold the furniture, then went to jail for for the debt he owed.
I sat in the gallery with my daughter on my lap as he made promises I knew he would not keep. I did not utter a word. Deep inside I knew this was a doomed relationship, but I was raised to believe you always stand in support of your husband. Like I said, I was naive.
He lied, telling the judge he was needed to help his parents on their family farm. They didn’t have a farm. They only planted a garden like everyone else in the area. He apologized to Mr. J and promised to repay him every penny. Unfortunately, Mr. J believed him and, feeling sorry for him, told the judge he wished to drop the charges. He was released with the empathy of everyone involved.
We have choices. Some are revealed to us only after we are able to see our situation more clearly. I wish I could tell you it all turned out for the best for everyone. But it did not happen that way. Our relationship did not survive. He continued to spin his version of reality that would, in time, become a spiral from which he could not escape. It would eventually be part of the reason he lost his life. I, too, feel empathy for him, for all he missed, and all he lost.
There, but for the grace of God, go I.