After my wife died, I volunteered on a crisis line. “You must keep clear limits with callers,” said Marilyn the training coordinator. “Don’t under any circumstances interact with anyone in person.”
I didn’t tell her that my boundaries were non-existent. That’s why I lived mostly alone.
“Sometimes we need to be by ourselves,” I told Caller R. who after an hour of borderless talk exchange asked me to meet her. “In the long run, It’s much less stressful.”
“I need someone to be with me,” she said. “In person.”
“Can’t we just share our pain over the phone?” I asked.
“Then we’re only voices,” she replied. “With dead space between us.”
I imagined the window she was in. That fifteen- or twenty-minute square that hits in seconds when you can’t stand being alive any more.
“We can meet at the twenty-four hour doughnut shop,” I said.
“Yes,” agreed Caller R. “You can call me Rolynda.” She paused. “I relate to your friendly voice. I felt empty today,” she said, “invisible until I talked with you.”
“I’ll be there at midnight,” I said. “I’m the man in the green reflective vest.”
“It’s nerve wracking to meet people,” I told Co-ordinator Marilyn when she first took me on. “I only want to help them in my spare time.”
“From a distance,” she said.
“There’s such a thing as too close” I agreed.
“Remember, you can’t rescue people” Marilyn advised. “It’s a bottomless spiral of involvement.”
“Sometimes I get whirled down,” I said. “Don’t you think there can be calm in deep connection?”
“It’s possible,” Marilyn said. “Crisis is the opposite of calm.”
“Those in chaos don’t want to be alone,” I said.
“Take a yoga course,” Marilyn suggested. “That’s a real stress reliever.” She gave me a B plus in the crisis line training, and made a compliment. “You seem to have insight.”.
I began my volunteer shifts. I listened to the state of the unstable, heard those treading the edge, and mindfully touched the chronically suffering. I found my own fears and sickness reflected back. I believed both the caller and I could learn mutual lessons, experience dual catharses, from the issues we discussed.
“Yes indeed,” I’d say “Getting out into the world can be very scary,” or “for sure, there is ambivalence in making any decision. Sometimes choice is agony.”
My motto became ’We can level each other out.” Even better, I imagined the caller was myself. Then I could feel true empathy. “Yeah, I’ve been there,” I said. “I’ve been at the edge of the black hole.”
“Why didn’t you get sucked into that hole?” the caller might ask.
“Someone’s hand grabbed and pulled me away,” would be my answer.
That someone was Cara, my late wife.
I volunteered for the crisis line exactly a year and a half after Cara died. “Life is too cruel,” she wrote. So, she wrenched the cruellest act known on her own body, sentencing herself to be hung by the neck until dead dead dead.
“Why did she feel so terrible?” I asked the investigating officer.
“We may never have the answer,” he said in a serious voice. “I don’t think you should sleep here in your house tonight.”
I did anyway. Cara’s body had been removed. I didn’t feel the immediate physical loss. In my opinion, her spirit remained. Over the next weeks, I felt the motivation, the power of will in Cara’s suicide. I admired her tenacity at holding on for so long. I still don’t know how she gathered the strength, on a Thursday afternoon, in the attic, with a rope, while I was filling out report cards at work. “It was the bipolar illness talking,” said Doctor Albrecht. “She seemed happy at her last appointment.”
“Two days before, she expressed how much she loved me,” I said. “She said she’d never kill herself because it would hurt me so.”
“She seemed happy at her last appointment,” Dr. Albrecht repeated. We nodded at each other.
“She must have experienced that fifteen-minute window of disintegration,” I told the doctor. “And if you fall through, there’s no going back.”
“Yes,” said Albrecht. “If she made it through, she’d be with you going south to Mexico like you both planned.” The doctor began to cry.
I washed all my clothes the day after Cara’s death, it felt good to get out to the laundromat. I thoroughly cleaned all the cat litter boxes, hosed down the deck, and the morning after that, returned to work. My principal insisted I do light duties, though I could’ve handled a full class of students.
It took a year after Cara passed away for crisis to creep in. I woke up one morning and fully understood I was alone. No boundaries. I stood up, could barely walk. There was no one to lean on. The tendons above my foot throbbed.
“It’s a twist in the back,” Dr. Albrecht said. She wrote me a note for a few weeks off work.
I couldn’t go jogging, so I went to the swimming pool and practised water running for hours at a time, The overuse resulted in arm tendonitis. That stopped me playing the guitar or using the computer. I could barely drive the car three blocks, because of the burning.
I started to sleep all day on the bed. Slowly, I moved down, settled onto the floor, not rising from the hardwood because of sciatic back distress, except to drink painfully from canned nutrition bottles or feed the noisy cats. Mid-winter rolled around. The furnace kicked out, and didn’t go back on. I hired a service man to come over. Every room in the house felt cold and empty.
In came the furnace person. I noted a beetle face, arm veins bulging. “Too much dust down there. You need replacement parts,” he announced after an initial examination. “It might be cheaper to buy a new furnace.”
“Hmmmm. He could be right.” I thought. “He’s the furnace expert.” Then again, maybe he was a rip off artist. “I can’t make up my mind what to do,” I said, standing in my doorway, covered with two sleeping bags. “Maybe I can stand here all winter and stay warm.”
“You will freeze your ass off without a new furnace,” he responded. I closed the door and lay on the floor covered with parkas. I shivered all night.
The repairman sent the company sales rep over, a man with stinking breath. I dressed in my best sleeping bags as the thin bug-eyed persuader asked for four thousand dollars up front. “You must install a new furnace!” He waved a contract in my face. “You need heat!” He poked his finger forward. “You will freeze!” I stood there shivering, indecisive until he left. Then I phoned him, my fingers and voice shaking. “Yes, I must buy this furnace! I do not wish to die.”
Twenty minutes later I phoned back and shouted “No, I cannot do this purchase! It is a rip off!” I changed my mind a number of times over the next twenty four hours, phoning the sales rep about fifteen times. I could hear his gnashing teeth. “What the hell is wrong with you?” he finally yelled. “Make up your mind!”
I ruminated for days about the lack of warmth. Would the pipes freeze? I shivered on the shag rug and visualized the basement filling up with icy water. I thought up some stories about the insect like furnace men. I whirled the ideas around, ruminated and pondered. The ideas seemed very plausible. Gradually, they appeared definitely true. The heating company’s head manager phoned and announced “My salesman is upset. Give him a straight answer. Do you want the new furnace or not?”
I called my teacher friends Steve and Julia.
“They’re giving me ultimatums,” I told Steve. “These furnace operations are mostly fronting for illegal activities. I read it online.”
“I don’t think so,” he said. “Anyway, there’s nothing wrong with your heating system.”
“The furnace people are going to kidnap me, hold me in the basement and torture out my bank information,” I told Julia. “That is after they don’t install the new furnace.”
“We’re very concerned about your mental health,” she said.
“My mind is fine,” I told her. “But I think I’ve got a fever.”
Without Steve and Julia’s help, I’d never have spun out of my downward cycle. When you lie on the floor all day, bad things appear in your mind, they float near the ceiling and you follow them in your imagination up to the attic. “My wife died there,” I told Steve when he came over with a plate of pork bits and a case of pop. “I cut her down.”
“That’s a terrible thing,” Steve said. He took off his sweater. “I feel huge heat coming from the vents,” he announced. “This room is boiling,”
Julia said. “You need medical help. You are grieving your wife, and you look like you lost fifty pounds.”
I’m burning up with a deadly jungle flu,” I told them. “See?” I rubbed my temples and showed them the sweat smears. “The furnace men are coming tonight,” I gesticulated towards the basement. “If I’m not here, they’ll burn the house down! But if I am here, they’ll torture me to get my bank code. They want that four thousand dollars! What I do,” I told Steve and Julia, “Is light pages of newspaper on fire, drop them on the floor then see how fast I can put them out. I smiled. “If the furnace men get through the door, I’ll toss the gas can.”
“My God, that’s incredibly dangerous,” Julia shrieked.
“The heat is up to ninety degrees,” said Steve. “It’s just puking out like the Amazon, man.”
“No,” I said. “I am experiencing a terrible malaria. The furnace men put germs in the machine and they’re blowing by the billions out the register. You must leave if you don’t want to catch it.”
Julia called the ambulance. “You need help and you need it now.”
I thought about that. I could escape the house without being detected, protected by the paramedics, and an emergency prescription of anti virals would help with the flu.
“Please ask them not to use their siren,” I insisted. “I don’t want the furnace men to hear that I betrayed them.”
Steve and Julia advocated me into the psychiatric ward, with Dr. Albrecht’s assistance. I settled well in a place with clear boundaries. After two months of recovery, I volunteered for the crisis line. On my tenth shift, I met crisis line caller Rolynda. We went for doughnuts and coffee. I first noticed wrinkles all down one side of her face, then her platinum blonde hair. Her tiny yellow tinged teeth needed cleaning.
“I ran into a seventeen-year-old boy at the bus depot,” she revealed. “We talked for hours just like you and me. I took him home and we had sex. Very quickly. I feel terrible,” she said. “I could be his mother.” Then she shrugged. “He stole my credit card when he left, went through my purse while I used the bathroom.”
Her lips were purple, smeared in lavender lipstick, she wore jade earrings that matched her eyes and when she spoke it was in a deeper tone, like from a chain smoker, and in fact, she stank of smoke, oddly more like campfire smoke than tobacco.
“Thank you for coming here tonight,” she told me. “I know I’m a complete mess. I lay outside last night near the pulp mill as penance for my sins.”
“That must be the smell,” I said. “I have to tell you that this physical hello I’m doing is going against all crisis line protocol.”
“You so much want to save me,” she continued, then looked up. “You’re way taller than I thought.”
She kept talking for three hours. Her pupils become huger as she pulled me into her life story. I felt my spirit sucked into her woe.
As we left she said “When I discussed suicide with you on the phone, I held a piece of smashed window glass under my tongue. Now that you’ve come to see me and listened so well I’ve removed that glass.”
She’s shared her deepest feelings. Yet that glass thing bothered me a lot.
“Can you show it to me?” I asked.
“No,” Rolynda said. “That’s my personal business.”
When Rolynda and I met in person for the second time she suggested: “Let’s go down by the sea and sit on some picnic tables.”
She had the same pressured tone as Cara. She appeared skinny and shaky, rather like my late wife. I suspected past meth use, which she confirmed. “I went cold turkey. That’s why I started smoking again.”
Nature calmed her just as it did my wife. We sat on the beach.
“I think suicide should be legal,” she said.
I told her “My wife thought so too.”
We stared out at the dark water, at the dark hulls of cargo ships.
“It takes a lot of willpower quit meth,” I said. “How did you do it, if I may ask?”
“I just did,” she says. “Just like I’m asking you to sleep with me. You could be my perfect partner tonight.”
I looked at her shadow in the dark.
“I don’t know about that,” I said. “I have many flaws.”
“You are perfect for me,” Rolynda answered.
“Are you a manipulator, Rolynda?” I asked.
“What do you mean?”
“Are you twirling me round your little finger with your misery?”
“I don’t know what you are talking about.”
“You know I want to save you. So I come out to the beach, and I fall into your black hole of suffering, and you make me do what you want. I’m totally breaking my crisis line volunteer boundaries.”
“Why are you yelling?”
I think of the furnace men. I think how they tried to get me to buy a new furnace by telling me lies.
“Do you have any glass beneath your tongue tonight, Rolynda?” I asked.
“No,” she replied.
“Did you ever have any?”
“That’s my personal business,” she tells me.
“That’s all I need to know,” I stand up to leave.
“I have my boundaries,” she says.
We leave the beach, and go our separate ways.
I’m no longer a crisis line volunteer. Rolynda told Marilyn, the co-ordinator, that I had personal conversations with her down by the sea. I also told Marilyn about my two month stay on a psychiatric ward.
“You could do a lot of damage to vulnerable people,” Marilyn said. “What else did you hide from me?”
“It’s so hard for people to commit these days,” I responded. “They always want to make a connection first. I only wanted to help with the human connection.”
“Rolynda was not an appropriate friend,” Marilyn tells me. “Have you made any appropriate friends?”
“Being alone suits me,” I said. “My back connects with the floor very well.”
I didn’t tell Marilyn that I now slept in the old conjugal bed, with my dead wife’s sheets wrapped around me. Every night, I visualised that we were together. Sometimes, if I lost control of my daydreams, Cara turned out to be a corpse. Sometimes, if she raised herself up on one elbow, rested her hand on her chin and announced “I’ve never loved anyone more,” like she used to do, the rest of my day I floated in happiness.
Alone, I need no boundaries. It’s easy to lie on the floor all day. When you belong to that floor, you know its hardness very well. Getting up again takes you to unfamiliar territory.
“Cara loved you, Colton,” says my friend Julia. “It wasn’t your fault.”
“We were enmeshed,” I answer. “If one of us disappeared, so would the other.”
“Are you still having those fifteen minute windows of complete disintegration?”
“Fortunately not at this time,” I tell her. “My furnace is working well, too.”
“Let me give you a hug,” she says.
“Maybe we can shake hands,” I tell her. “I’m better with formal gestures.”
“Okay,” Julia says.
When I awaken from a bad dream and reach my fingers across the bed at night, I imagine that I touch Cara’s cold face. That’s a frontier I don’t want to cross in reality. I see Rolynda in the street sometimes, walking her tiny sweater clad dogs. I’ve never come to any definite conclusions about whether she really held glass in her mouth. Upon her approach, I don’t even check my state of mind. I hold my phone to my ear, and talk on by.
I tell Julia I’m feeling much better these days, with supportive friends like her and Steve. I’m making, as they say, much healthier choices.