Giulia’s mental health had deteriorated quickly, and I was terrified each time she spoke to me about killing herself. But then one day I was too tired to respond.
One afternoon my wife, Giulia, asked me: “Mark, if I kill myself, will you promise me that you will find a new wife so that you can still be happy?” I sighed and leaned back into the chair next to her, unsure of what to say. Mark, if I kill myself, will you promise me that you will find a new wife so that you can still be happy?” I sighed and leaned back into the chair next to her, unsure of what to say.
Actually, that’s not entirely true. I knew exactly what I wanted to say. I had been saying it for eight months. It’s just that at that moment, I was so tired – tired from work, tired from worry, tired from so many conversations about suicide – that I didn’t have the energy for it again. So I sat in silence.
My wife had been hospitalised eight months previously with a hospitalised eight months previously with a psychotic break
. It started with a new job, which made Giulia more stressed than she had ever been, to the point of work paralysis, loss of appetite and inability to sleep.
The slide into psychosis was rapid and entirely unexpected. Sure, she had been stressed out before, but nothing like this. Out of desperation, I took her to the emergency room, where they admitted her to the psych ward for 23 days to address her escalating paranoia and delusions.
A moment that changed me: when the young man I tried to help took his life. She came home from the hospital heavily medicated and suicidally depressed. She had little to no energy for anything, and spent much of her time wishing that she could kill herself.
This was terrifying for me. I took a few months off work, so that she wouldn’t be alone all day, a prospect that worried me and her doctors. When she brought up suicide, which was all the time, I panicked. I treated her feelings like a fire, and I was the extinguisher. I had to act quickly, otherwise the warning sparks could grow.
Her first fixation was on overdosing on her medication, so I concocted a plan to hide the pills. I changed the hiding place every few days, and retrieved the medication each night as she waited for me in the bathroom, and then hid them again after she took them. Can’t overdose on pills if you can’t find them.
Then her focus shifted to the Golden Gate Bridge. She wanted to drive there on our scooter and jump off, and she told me about this, over and over again. I couldn’t hide a bridge.
She told me these things when we were walking on the beach together, or at home cooking dinner, but I was so afraid that I responded in full emergency mode, as if we were up on the bridge, Giulia on one side of the railing and me on the other. I couldn’t not see it that way. Someone I loved was in pain, and I needed to do something about it.
“Doing something” meant reminding her of all the reasons it was worth staying alive – how good we had it, how much our families loved us, how much there was to look forward to. It almost became a script, a choreographed dance: she told me she felt suicidal; I tried to overwhelm her feelings with why she shouldn’t feel that way. It never convinced her of anything. But on that afternoon, exhaustion had beaten me down into shutting up. I sat quietly and held her hand.
She looked at me in surprise. Cautiously, she ventured with another thought. “I hate myself so much, and I want to die,” she said, and I said nothing.
“I wish I had never been born,” she said.
‘She was radiant, way out of my league’: a story of love and mental illness.
She continued through her tortured feelings. I listened, and hated what I heard, but I knew that at this moment she was safe. We weren’t actually there on the bridge railing. We were at home, together, and there was no way she could act upon her pain. These were just words.
And then she left me stunned. “Thank you for listening to me,” she said, pulling my hands to her lips to kiss. “It’s so nice to talk to you. I feel a lot better.”
I hadn’t said a word. It dawned on me how little I had been listening to her, without judgment or rush to action. She didn’t need me to tell her that everything was going to be OK. That didn’t help. She needed me to hear her pain. Being heard somehow made it more manageable.
On that afternoon I finally learned that when any of us is in pain, the greatest gift you can give is to listen, patiently and purely.
Mark Lukach is a teacher and freelance writer.