By Sammy Shuster
James is a veterinarian. He graduated from Cornell University with a degree in veterinary medicine. He specialized in exotics; such as lizards, rabbits, and birds. One day he decided to end his life. He injected himself with the euthanasia fluid he used on his animals. He got in his car and started driving to what he thought would be his final resting place. On the way, a child on a bike rode in front his car. James stopped and for whatever reason, his car stalled. A policeman saw the vehicle and approached James just as the deadly fluid began to take hold of him. James was taken to the hospital and was induced into a coma. After 8 days, he woke up. I was admitted to the psychiatric hospital on a Monday night. I got in late, when everyone was asleep. The nurse asked if I had any visible markings on my body; such as tattoos, scars, or birthmarks. I showed her my stretch marks and she noted them down. I snuck into my room and got into bed hoping not to scare my new roommate. It was a struggle, but somehow I slept.
The next morning, I joined the group and met my peers on the affective mood disorder floor. Everyone was very nice, but quiet. In our first group, we were encouraged to write about our experience; but most chose not to share. I was very vocal; discussing how it felt to not want my baby, to regret the thing you’ve wanted most. I felt alone, my experience was very different from the others. Although we all had some form of depression; I felt such an incredible guilt for mine. As a new mother, I was supposed to be joyful, beaming and loving. Instead, I was suicidal. On Tuesday, James was introduced to the group. He was blunt; speaking freely about his suicide attempt. I was in awe of his honesty. While most of the patients seemed that they were just going through the motions; James seemed determined. I didn’t feel so great that day; I felt unable to connect with anyone. At lunch, I isolated myself; eating alone in the community room. James saw me and asked to join me at the table. I listlessly obliged. He noticed how tense I was and asked about my story. For whatever reason, I felt motivated to speak. I talked about what the doctor had said to me that day. “Depression is like wearing sunglasses; it distorts how you see things. With depression, you can’t take care of yourself so therefore it’s impossible to take care of others – This is why Postpartum Depression is so difficult to cope with.” James, a veterinarian, and lover of animals; had many pets that he loved and cared for but as his depression worsened he started to give them away to his family. “They were my world, but I had no ability to take care of them.” James’ story absolutely took a hold of me. Even as a man, with no children; he was the first person I met who I felt relatable too. I started to feel a little better.
The next day, we had a music therapy group. The social worker had brought out a bunch of different instruments and asked us if any of us had experience with them. I felt embarrassed when I said I had been playing guitar for 13 years. Here I was receiving music therapy from a social worker when I myself was a social worker who loved music. As I stared at the guitar; an even sadder revelation came over me. I didn’t want to play it. I had absolutely no interest in it. I felt overwhelmed with sadness and darted out of the room. I had a panic attack; and laid in bed for a while. I missed lunch, group, but then was finally ushered out by one of the nurses to join everyone in the community room. I sat next to James. At some point; I looked at James and asked him “Do you play Dungeons and Dragons?” He was surprised and said “No.” I said, “You look like someone who would play Dungeons and Dragons.” I laughed; he reminded me of the types of people who were my favorite people. Mentioning the game; somehow got us talking about all sorts of things that we were interested in. I told him about my music, and the bands I was in. He told me about his family and his work. I blurted out my only real connection with animal health, which was that my mom was a volunteer at a marine hospital in Florida. I rambled on about everything I knew about sea animals, my experience whale watching, and my love for Star Trek IV – the Voyage Home. Somewhere in there, he mentioned that I was sparking his interest, that he had always been interested in providing veterinary services to marine wildlife. “Maybe,” he said “That’s what I’m meant to do after this; maybe there is a reason that I lived.”
On my last full day there, I asked James if he wanted to join me for some coloring. I found a coloring sheet of a bird, thinking he’d like it. “I haven’t done this in a long time,” he mused. We were interrupted when a group started. It ended up being a trivia game about animals. James nailed it of course; he either knew all of the answers or knew when to debate with the moderator. The whole session was hilarious and inspiring. James had given away his animals because he couldn’t care for them, but it was evident how much love and passion was still in there. I felt unable to care for my baby, but maybe there was a love beneath the surface.
James, I need to find you. I need to know that you are ok, that I am ok, that we are ok. That we made it through and are living our lives. I have a vision where we meet at the John Heinz wildlife refuge and walk around the marshes. I introduce you to my baby who I love indescribably. You share little tidbits about the many birds inhabiting the area. Our stroll is comfortable and leisurely, the sun shines brightly on our faces. James, I dream that somewhere you are with your animals, that you are researching marine biology programs, that you are taking housecalls for sick lizards and wounded turtles. I need to believe that you are a home and your animals are home now too, and that you are taking care of them – like you took care of me.