Choosing life

Published April 1, 2012

I was only half awake as I settled into the back of the cab, but there was no mistaking the cigarette smoke. Fair enough, I thought to myself. I kept you waiting.

It was my weekly taxi ride to the VIA Rail station, to catch the train from Belleville to Toronto. The driver had the radio tuned to the local station, CJBQ. I remembered that my father had always called it CJB-Queer, long before I knew that “queer” had other connotations. All I knew was those hurtin’ tunes drove me bananas, too.

The 6 a.m. newscast jolted me out of my reverie. Some poor soul had jumped off the bridge into the Bay of Quinte. That must have been a drop of at least 150 feet, I thought to myself. The newsreader continued: Whether or not this individual survived is not known at this time.

I immediately thought of Sarah.

For four years, Sarah had the office next to mine at the publishing company where we both worked. We were both moms of young children and each of us was editing a national magazine.

I often found a note on my desk whenever the latest issue of my magazine arrived from the printer. There was only one person who ever gave me that kind of feedback: in writing-in calligraphy no less-on classic stationery, thick and off-white. Knowing Sarah, the jet-black script had probably flowed from a Mont Blanc.

I read your spring issue from cover to cover last night, her note read. It was wonderful. The article on travelling with small children will make such a difference to our family vacation this summer. Thank you so much, Kristin!

Mercifully, the culture at work was child-friendly and on occasion, when a pediatrician’s appointment was part of the day’s to-do list, Sarah or I would bring a child into the office. One day, to lend Sarah a hand while she met with visitors, I held her eight-month-old son on my lap as I proofread. I remember the smell of his sweet little head as it bobbed back and forth between me and the pages laid out on my desk. Knowing how Sarah doted on her children, I felt flattered to be entrusted with his care, however briefly.

We both moved on to other jobs and as these things often go, contact between us became sporadic. When news arrived of Sarah’s sudden death, it came as a shocking, brutal blow.

She had checked into a hotel near her home, I was told, and taken a lethal dose of pills. Police had located her through the credit card transaction.

After the funeral, there was talk that Sarah had been found in the bathtub, wearing her best clothes, her purse around her neck. A note to each of her children had been placed on the floor beside the bath, their names carefully written out. She was 43.

Depression has many faces, some more difficult to recognize than others. Sure, it may be triggered by a real-life crisis, but what distinguishes major depression from garden variety distress is that it doesn’t end on its own. The only way to keep from putting a leg over the railing is to get help.

Doctors I’ve spoken to say depression is a chronic disease, caused by a neurochemical imbalance. Chances are you’ll need treatment for the rest of your life, just like someone with diabetes. According to the Public Health Agency of Canada, about eight per cent of adults experience major depression. Unfortunately, many don’t seek treatment.

Sarah had just begun treatment for depression, and yet she still took her own life. I do know that for some people prescribed antidepressants, the first few weeks can be dangerous. Sometimes, the medication can energize before it improves mood.

Maybe that’s what happened to Sarah; I don’t know. But I have to ask: Are our clergy trained to spot the warning signs of depression and impending suicidal behaviour? Are they equipped to provide comfort and support in a way that augments the efforts of friends, family and perhaps a medical practitioner? How do we recognize the many faces of depression in those most at risk: the elderly, teenagers, the newly bereaved, the addicted and even mothers.

Ultimately, pastoral care provides a link to a world that knows no church and state boundaries, a place where the deeply desperate are crying out for a reason to live.

Kristin Jenkins is editor of the Anglican Journal.
email: [email protected]


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