Chapter Four – How Much Longer?
Too often we underestimate the power of a touch, a smile, a kind word, a listening ear, an honest compliment, or the smallest act of caring, all of which have the potential to turn a life around.
I glare at the ringing phone, take a deep breath, grab a scratch sheet of paper, and, with pen in hand, answer it. “Assessments, this is Joe. May I help you?”
“I got a question if you have a minute,” the raspy voice on the other end says.
“Go ahead,” I reply, doodling on my scratch sheet.
“How long should it take for an overdose to kill me?”
I sigh, the diagonal lines on each corner of my scratch sheet mimicking the lines on my strife-filled face, my blended family battles and blues pushing me to the boiling point. I take another deep breath.
“I don’t mean to sound rude, but I really need to know,” the voice says with a heightened sense of urgency.
“That depends.” I nod to my co-workers entering the Birdcage.
“Look, if you can’t answer my question…”
“I can help you,” I reply, refocused and kicking into autopilot.
“Okay, so how long does it usually take for an overdose to do the job?”
“It depends on what the person took,” I say, glancing at my phone, hoping a number pops up.
“I took a boatload and just need to know what kind of time frame I’m looking at.”
I’m scribbling boxes, unable to recognize whether it’s a male or a female on the other line. For sure it’s an adult. Sounds older, early fifties maybe. Sounds genuine. Hard to imagine someone able to fake that raspy tone, and yet it has a mellowness to it. For whatever reason, the number the voice is calling from is not popping up on my phone. I’m also wondering if it’s one of the “mystery callers” that administration has phoning periodically to monitor staff’s ability to handle crisis calls. “Tell me what you took,” I say, expecting the usual punch line about how she is only thinking about taking the pills and just needs someone to talk to.
“I took a two week supply of my Depakote, about a dozen of my boyfriend’s blood pressure meds, and twenty xanax.”
“Okay…” I sit up, grab another scratch sheet and frantically signal my co-worker. She reads my hand-written note to call the operator regarding tracing the call.
“Okay, so how much longer?” the voice, sounding more like a male, asks.
“How long ago did you take the pills?” I reply, a wave of nausea rumbling within. I’ve fielded a thousand calls from people contemplating suicide. Interviewed a hundred status-post overdose victims young and old, not to mention cutters, carbon monoxide failures, even self-inflicted gun-shot victims who pulled back at the last minute, one not fast enough, blowing a portion of her 17-year-old skull away. But never had I talked to someone on the phone who had just OD’d and called in. My gut told me this was no prank or hospital-directed mystery caller.
“About thirty minutes ago,” the voice says.
“So what’s your name?” I ask.
I hear a chuckle. “Sorry, not going there. I just want to know how much longer before I can finally let go. Otherwise, if I need to take more pills, I’ve got more.”
“My name’s Joe…” I say.
“Nice to meet you, Joe.”
“So what’s going on that you want to end it all?” I ask, hoping to buy some time
until I can figure out how to trace the call and get the police and an ambulance out to where he is. I glance over at my co-worker. She shrugs and hands me a note — The operator says it came in as blocked and there’s no way to trace it.
“I’m sure you’ve heard it before,” the voice says to me.
“Not your story,” I say, staring at the phone monitor. “And besides, if not talking to you, I’d be talking to somebody else, and you sound a lot more interesting than the alternative.” I cuss under my breath and return to coloring black blocks on my scratch paper, knowing there will be no phone number.
“You still haven’t answered my question.”
“It’s hard to tell,” I say, “without knowing your medical background.”
“Can you at least call a doctor and find out?” the voice asks. “If not, tell me who to contact and I’ll call them.”
“I doubt the doctor can pinpoint a time over the phone,” I say, “but I’ll gladly page one and ask when he calls back. How’s that?”
“I just need to know…”
“So how long has it been since you took all those pills?” I ask again, glancing at my co-workers on the phone, scrambling to find a way to trace the call.
“About thirty minutes ago,” the voice says, the raspy tone slowing a bit.
“So what’s your story?” I ask and take a long deep breath.
“I just don’t want to hurt anymore.”
“Who hurt you?” I ask, looking again to my co-workers. Both shake their heads in disgust. I’m on my own.
“Look, Joe, I appreciate you trying to help, but I just need to know how much longer. That’s all…”
“I’ve paged one of our docs,” I say. “As soon as he calls back, I’ll ask him. My guess is he’ll want to know your height and weight, age, sex, that sort of thing.” I pull back from the desk counter and lean back in my chair. “In the mean time, you might as well talk to me. If you call one of the other hospitals, you’ll have to start over with all the pleasantries. You know what I’m saying?”
“Yeah, I know.”
“Before you tell me your story, let’s get the doctor stuff taken care of.” I stretch my arms to the ceiling and back down to the counter, pen in hand. “How much do you weigh and how tall?”
I keep her talking… her scratchy voice slowly fading
She provides her height and weight without hesitation.
“Male or female?”
“You really can’t tell?”
“Your voice has a cool raspy tone,” I say, “and these phone lines aren’t the greatest.”
“I’m a woman, in my late forties, and a truck driver.”
“You’re kidding?” I say, as I jot down the evidence and show it to my co-workers, wondering if it’s a patient we might have admitted in the past. “You drive across the country?”
I keep her talking about her trucking days, her scratchy voice slowing, seemingly fading away with each passing sentence. “So what happened that you stopped driving?” I ask, the lines on my scratch paper growing deeper, straighter.
“I got another DUI, my second, and I’m looking at doing some time.”
“Were you driving your truck at the time?”
“Hell no,” she says. “I never drank while driving my rig. I’d gone out to eat with my boyfriend and had a few beers. Had a tail light out and didn’t know it. I wasn’t swerving or nothing. The cop was willing to throw it out, but that damn judge wanted to make an example of me. That bastard doesn’t care that he’s cost me my livelihood, my home… I’m about to lose everything.”
“What about your boyfriend?” I ask.
“He doesn’t need all this shit dumped on him. He deserves better than that.”
“You got any kids?”
“Not less you count my dog.”
“What are you laughin’ at?” she asks, a tinge of spunk left in her voice.
“I got a mutt, as spoiled and pampered as any kid,” I say.
“You got that right.”
“Your dog travel with you?” I ask as I convert my lines to boxes.
“Yeah…” She sighs, her shallow breath oozing into my veins. “He went everywhere with me.”
“You go out West very much?” I ask, silently praying, yet sensing that unless this lady finds some reason to live…
“Been awhile,” she replies. “What’s up with your doc?” She takes a deep breath, nearly choking. “Is he going to call back?”
“You know how moody psychiatrists are,” I say. “We got one that we page for hours on end, and when he finally calls back, swears that his pager never went off.”
“Sounds like my shrink,” she says. “He says I’m bipolar and OCD.”
“You ever been here?” I ask, a long shot but what else do I have?
“Never been to your hospital,” she slurs, “but I heard it’s nice.”
“Yeah, well, don’t believe everything you hear,” I say as I circle her meds and the amounts she allegedly took thirty minutes ago on my scribble sheet, the tip of my pen digging deep into the paper, smearing the ink on the letters, OD.
I get no response. “You still with me?”
“I’m hanging on.”
I hear heavy breathing.
“How much longer?” she asks in a whisper. “I’m ready…”
“Are you sure?” I fire back, hoping to stir her up. “It’s not too late.”
“I’ve said my good-byes,” she says without hesitation. “Written my farewell note. It’s time.”
The office phone rings.
“Hey, can you hold the line a minute?” I ask. “This may be the doctor.”
“You promise me you’ll hold the line?” I plead with her while signaling my co-workers not to answer the phone.
“I’m not going anywhere,” she replies in a whisper.
I pick up on the ringing line, transfer the unrelated call accordingly, and turn to my co-workers, who inform me that even the hospital’s Information Technology guru’s couldn’t trace the call. We’re screwed.
I jump back on the OD line. “You there?”
“Hey, my favorite female truck driver. You still with me?”
“I’m here,” she says. “What did your doc say?”
“You should be losing consciousness soon,” I say as I draw a box around the capital letters OD.
“Thank you Joe.”
“You’re welcome,” I say as I shade the box in light black ink.
“Nice talking with you,” she says, a tinge of relief, it seems, in that ever-fading raspy voice.
“You too,” I say. “Sure you don’t want to change your mind? There’s still time if I call #911.”
“I’ve made my peace.”
“What about your mutt?”
“He’s with my boyfriend and in good hands.”
“I’m not afraid anymore.”
“But…” I plead.
“Hey Joe,” she whispers.
“You sure?” I stop doodling.
“I’m not afraid anymore.”
I lean forward, glancing at my scratch sheet, not wanting to let go. “You got my number if you change your mind, right?”
“Take care of that mutt of yours,” she slurs with great effort.
“Will do,” I say.
She hangs up.
I hold the phone to my ear, hoping that she picks back up. Needing her to pick back up and tell me to let go, that it’s really okay for me to let go. I glance around the office. I’m all alone, my co-workers having moved onto the next troubled souls on the other side of the Birdcage, anxious to share their sagas.
I hang the phone up and sit in silence, staring at the scribbles on my scratch sheet: Female, truck driver, late forties, five foot something, one hundred and whatever pounds; my numbers unreadable, ink smeared across the retraced capital letters, OD, Depakote, 2-week supply, Xanax, 20 tabs, 12 b/p tabs. Her diagnoses, bipolar and OCD (Obsessive Compulsive Disorder), diagonally linked. I smile, her mentioning OCD while I sit with my miniscule boxes and arrows and precisely-spaced lines drawn at each corner of my three-by-five scratch paper, the time she called meticulously enclosed in parenthesis, the capital letters, DUI, circled and leading via perfectly matched triple arrows down the scratch sheet to the printed words, “judge-ordered time.” The words, “one year” arrowed over to, “losing license/ job,” arrowed down to, “losing house,” arrowed downward to the time of her alleged overdose.
I hold it up, studying it, my scratch paper that co-workers tease me about. I take a dozen or so sheets of clean copy paper and tear them in half along the edge of the makeshift countertop that stretches from one end of the Birdcage to the other. I then take each half and meticulously tear it into quarters, the result a neat stack of scratch note paper.
forty thousand-plus scratch sheets,… Nary a one have I ever saved. Until today…
The phone rings, and my ritual begins. Same pen, same tone of voice. Same subsequent spill about how we offer assessments around the clock if it’s simply cold callers asking the usual we-need-or-want-help questions, all the while doodling on my scratch sheet as I jot down pertinent information about their situations. If it’s a referral call from one of the various crisis teams, nursing homes, schools or area hospitals, I write down key clinical notes in shorthand as I scribble in lines, boxes and arrows.
Fourteen years and damn near forty thousand-plus scratch sheets, some with only a name and a number, thousands of others filled with someone’s saddest darkest moments. Nary a one have I ever saved. Until today…
I take her scratch sheet and touch up the diagonal lines and boxes. I read her brief description again, wondering what she looks like, the color of her hair and eyes. Wondering if those eyes are still alive. The phone rings. I glance around the office. My co-workers are interviewing their patients behind closed doors in respective assessment rooms, leaving the hallway just outside my Plexiglas perch vacant and silent.
The phone rings a second time. I glance at the number. Ring three reverberates about the silent office. I fold her scratch sheet neatly in half, her raspy voice telling me one last time, “I’m not afraid. I’ve made my peace.”
On the fourth ring, I take her sheet and fold it in half one more time before placing it in my wallet. The phone resounds a fifth time as I reach for a new scratch sheet, grab my pen, take a deep breath, and answer it in my closest-I’ll-ever-get-to-Hollywood voice. “Assessments, this is Joe. May I help you?”
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