January 5, 2016
A night I will never forget.
One symptom of obsessive compulsive disorders is strange intrusive thoughts that are worrying or scary, but not particularly realistic or likely to happen. I have quite a number of these strange thoughts, which I rarely share with others. I worry that people will think I’m crazy or bizarre, and I feel ashamed or embarrassed to admit them. One of my OCD recurring thoughts involves a terrible fear that while I’m driving someone will step out in front of my car, or push someone in front of my car, or a car around me. Essentially, that I will unintentionally kill someone with my car or witness someone being hit by a car and dying.
I think of it whenever I drive and I’m often quite vigilant, keeping an eye on pedestrians and looking carefully at people on curbs, bicycles and around blind corners. Generally this level of hyper vigilance is unpleasant, stressful and unnecessary. I get startled easily when I drive, especially when my PTSD is triggered. I’m very alert, and in reality, I’m a very safe driver.
That night, my OCD saved a life.
I was supposed to be at a work meeting, but instead I was driving down a busy road in the city where I live. It was dark, rush hour, and I was heading to a meeting with my lawyer. I was driving over a bridge which crosses over a railway track when I saw the thing my OCD brain had been looking for for years.
There was a young woman standing on the edge of the railing. Clinging onto it, in a shaky, desperate way. A young woman about to jump to potential death. A young suicidal woman.
I slammed on the brakes, ignoring the traffic, jumped out of the car into the cold winter night and walked very slowly towards the young woman.
My internal dialogue went something like this:
“If this woman jumps to her death you are going to witness it. You are going to be traumatized and you are going to be impacted by witnessing her death. This is going to be awful. But you have to try to help her, you can’t do nothing. You have all the skills you need to help her. You have the training, you have the work experience, you have the life experience, you are the only one here and this is the only chance she has. You have to try. You can do this.”
All that happened in the split second it took for me to walk closer enough to speak to her.
She was crying, shaking, trembling and balanced just barely on the railing. Sometimes holding on, sometimes standing up and trying to let go. I spoke to her gently. I told her I wasn’t going to call the police. I told her I was a support worker and that I just wanted to talk to her. I asked her to step down off the railing just for a moment to talk to me. I reassured her that I wasn’t going to call anyone or do anything, just talk to her. I told her my name, I told her where I worked.
She got down from the railing and back onto the railing a few times. I kept talking to her gently and reassuring her. Eventually I was standing quite close to her. I told her that I’d felt suicidal before, that I was sorry she felt SO bad that she wanted to hurt herself, I reminded her that I just wanted to talk to her. I have no idea how much time went by, but I think it was only a matter of minutes.
Finally she got down and turned towards me.
“I’m cold” she said.
And I knew I’d made the connection. The immediate danger was over. We both breathed. I asked her if she would come with me into my car so we could talk and I could drive her off the bridge. We walked to the car and as I got into the drivers seat the world reappeared. I was suddenly aware that my car was blocking a lane of traffic, cars were honking and passing and drivers were annoyed. I had tuned it out completely and was only aware of the young woman.
I also became aware that literally not one of those cars had stopped, offered to help or called for help. I felt the desperation of that poor woman, knowing that nobody in the world cared about her.
We sat in the car for a second, shivering and I could see her panic again.
“I’m not supposed to get into the car with strangers”
Luckily, I had my business card and a pamphlet from my workplace in the front seat. I reassured her that I was just trying to help her and I just wanted to drive her off the bridge so we could talk. She agreed and we drove down to a gas station which was just a moment away.
We talked for a little while. I told her a little bit about myself, the work I do helping abused women. I asked her if what was making her so upset that day had anything to do with that and she nodded. I asked her if she’d felt that way before and she said yes. I asked her if there was anywhere I could take her, a friend’s house, the hospital and she said maybe just to the mall nearby where she could catch the bus.
I could tell the immediacy of the crisis had passed for her. She seemed exhausted.
I drove her to the parking lot of the mall and we talked a little more. I invited her to call my organization for help anytime in the future. I thanked her for trusting me and for coming down from the bridge. Before she got out of the car she told me:
“If you had been a man, I would have jumped. If you had called the police I would have jumped”
She thanked me for saving her. I asked her if she would tell me her name. She said she wasn’t in the habit of getting into the car with people she doesn’t know. I told her under the circumstances I thought it was the lesser of two evils. We both laughed for a moment, she hugged me, told me her first name, and then she was gone.
The second the door of the car shut I burst into tears. My whole body was shaking. The reaction of shock hit me once she left, and all the fear, tension and emotion of the past 45 minutes washed over me.
But I wasn’t just crying for that young woman. I knew that I couldn’t control what might happen to her after she left my car. I knew I’d done my best and that my best had been enough.
I was crying for Darlene, for Irene, for Lexi…and for my dearest Marian.
Why was I there, at that moment, on a bridge with this complete stranger? But I didn’t get to say goodbye to so many of the friends I loved?
I felt an amazing sense of love and wonder at having saved a life, amazement at the randomness that I was there at that exact time, and that it was me and not someone else. It didn’t seem random at all. It seemed like everything that had happened to me in my life had lead me to that exact moment. Trained me and given me the exact skills I needed to talk that woman off the ledge. It felt like a moment of spirituality, connection and higher power.
But my sense of wonder in saving that young woman, didn’t erase the sorrow that I wasn’t there to save my friends. Or even to say goodbye. They are gone now, but I hope that woman from the bridge is still okay.