“Yeah. Yeah. You know what? Yeah, I’m going to kill myself.”
It wasn’t true. I promise. I was desperate. I felt like it was the only way I could get what I wanted. All I wanted was to be left alone.
The psychologist was a tall, slim woman with a straight, severe nose and unfriendly face. The first time I saw her I’d been locked up in the county jail for a few days and had spent my entire time in the Fish Tank. This was a cell situated in direct view of the intake counter where newly arrested individuals began their processing into County Jail. One wall had a large window, perhaps four feet wide and three feet tall, so I was constantly on display or in view. Even on the toilet. The total tonnage of the severity and far-reaching ramifications of my violent crime hadn’t fully settled in.
The Fish Tank was prime real estate, and the powers that be wanted to move me to a different cell. The psychologist’s inspection of me was largely perfunctory, designed to simple ascertain whether or not I was a danger to myself or to others. I wasn’t. I was moved further down the hallway to an observation cell where I was still alone, and frequently checked on, but not always on display. Alone was what I wanted, and while there I thrived.
I used my time to read books, study my Bible, pray, write. In ten days I read six books and wrote the first thirty pages of a novel. I rememorized once familiar Bible verses, receiving solace, encouragement and further conviction about my need for spiritual renewal.
I was still married at the time, and my arrest had completely blindsided my wife. Our first phone call from lockup was a quick one, shortly after my arrest and filled with anger, disbelief. Tears from us both. She said she didn’t know what she would do.
When I received a letter from her in my observation cell I was scared to open it, utterly terrified by the possibilities of what it could contain. It began with a poem, one that has grown in personal significance for me as the years have passed. She went on to say many things, the most important of which to me was that she still loved me and wasn’t going to divorce me. It would be several years before, in order to protect and preserve her own sanity and happiness, she would have to walk away forever. And I would have to let her go. However, in that moment, in that tiny cell, I was overcome with such a joyous relief and absolute elation. Her letter, my reconnecting to my faith in the Creator of the universe, and my productivity in reading and writing had all conspired to create a cocoon of comfort, hope, and a sense of self-worth. I loved my solitude and sanctuary too much and for that reason I didn’t want to hear what the psychologist had to say.
I was ushered to an alcove near the mugshot wall and fingerprinting machine where the resident psychologist was awaiting me. Our seats were the same height, and I was a little taller than her, but it felt like somehow she was looking down on me. She didn’t bother with any niceties or try to put me at ease.
“They want to put you in a cellblock. How does that sound? How do you feel about that?”
I thought I was coming for a nice chat, but she was checking up on me. I felt like I’d been ambushed. “No. No! I don’t want to do that.”
Two officers were blocking the entry to the alcove—they both tensed at my response. I wasn’t handcuffed and could’ve caused problems. I imagined they were readying for the worst.
The psychologist pressed forward, unfazed. “Well you can’t just stay in the cell you’re in now.”
“They need it. It’s only supposed to be temporary. You’ll have to go to a cellblock.”
“Because that’s how it works.”
“But I don’t want that. I don’t want to be around people.” I was beginning to panic. “I just want to be alone. Why can’t you leave me where I am? I’m being good. I’ve been writing, getting stuff done.”
“It doesn’t work that way. You’ll have to go in a cellblock. Do you know anyone that you’d want to go in with?”
I felt like she wasn’t understanding what I was saying. Or maybe just didn’t care. “No, I don’t know anyone. I don’t want to be around people.”
“Why don’t you want to be around people?”
“Because I want to be left alone.”
“Are you saying that you are going to hurt or attack someone if you go on a cellblock?”
“Because the cell you’re in is only for people in crisis. So if you are telling me that you’re going to hurt yourself or someone else, then we’d have to leave you in that cell. Is that what you’re telling me? Are you going to hurt yourself or someone else?”
“No, that’s not what I’m saying.”
“You’re sure you don’t want to harm yourself in any way? You’re not thinking of killing yourself or hurting yourself?”
“No, no. I just . . . I just want to be left alone.”
“Well if you’re not going to hurt yourself you have to go to a cellblock.”
It sounded to me like she was laying out options. So I threatened to kill myself: “Yeah. Yeah. You know what? Yeah, I’m going to kill myself.”
I was taken back to the same cell and when the door clattered shut I felt triumphant. I believed that the psychologist had been on my side and had provided me a way to stay in my preferred holding cell. My utter foolishness and lack of understanding is almost comical after sixteen years of hindsight. I reveled in my triumph for less than sixty seconds.
The electronic buzz and pop of the door being opened startled me, but the three officers standing there wearing latex gloves and serious looks froze me to the spot. It effectively disconnected my mind from the reality of my body. Two of them pulled me out. I was incapable of resisting. We stood outside the cell, an officer on either side of me, each with a firm grip on my arm ready to hold me back if necessary. It wasn’t. I was too stunned by the sudden reversal, numb. The other officer cleared out my cell. Books, Bible, pen, paper, clothes, bedding, soap, toothbrush. My mail, including the letter from my wife that I had poured over a dozen times or more. He wasn’t orderly or respectful about it as he pitched everything into the hallway until it was piled in a haphazard array around my feet. I looked down the hall to see the psychologist watching dispassionately. I opened my mouth to say something in protest, maybe a plea for intervention, but remained silent. My brain wasn’t processing anything correctly. I was unable to react or respond.
All that remained in the cell was a bare plastic covered mat. I was ordered inside and told to strip. They took my clothes. I stood naked, shivering, and not merely from the chill. My pulse felt like a nauseating hum in my chest and belly. I was handed a blanket and suicide gown made from thick quilted material that made it impossible to tie or fashion them into anything approximating a noose. The gown was secured with Velcro straps over the shoulder and was far from fashionable.
“It’s for your own good,” an officer said as the door slammed into place.
I haven’t often spoken of my faith in this venue. I accepted Jesus Christ as my personal Lord and Savior at a young age; perhaps too young to fully know what that meant. Over the years my fervor for that conversion had waned. Terrible decisions and drug addiction eventually led to my unthinkable crime and violent assault. Though I hadn’t remained faithful to my commitment, the presence of Jesus in my life had always been faithful. The concept of a jailhouse conversion or spiritual awakening is dubious only to those who have never felt the despair and debasement of being entirely stripped of everything. Once the cell door closed, I was alone in my suicide gown and staring down that sinister despair.
My thoughts were racing, a thousand at once and I couldn’t seize on any of them. Words were a whirl of nonsense and noise that buzzed and became an expanding crescendo in my brain. I was sobbing openly, loudly, choking in huge breathes until I was hyperventilating. I was breaking down. Through the swirling, burgeoning madness came a clear thought from deep within me: This is what it feels like to lose your mind. It was a detached, clinical assessment—just collecting data. Then everything seemed to escalate and the slim semblance of control I had a grip on slipped free leaving me untethered from anything recognizable. An abyss of desolation yawed before me and I had no way of preventing my collapsing into it.
Amidst the maelstrom came a thought. It was so direct and simple that it sounded like a hushed voice inside my head. Yet at the same time I intuitively grasped that this perfectly clear, unadulterated message came from something beyond myself. “Sing praises to him.” I was confused. It came again. “Sing praises to him.”
I grabbed ahold of the idea like a lifeline. My mind reeled, refusing to provide anything coherent. Then came a name. My voice faltered, and for an instant, I feared it wouldn’t work, but then it quavered from my jittering throat. “Jesus . . . Jesus . . . Jesus . . . there’s just something about that name . . .” My breathing calmed enough for me to pull in a large breath and continue, my voice, frail. “Master, savior, Jesus. Like the fragrance after the rain . . . Jesus, Jesus, Jesus. Let all heaven and earth proclaim . . .” I felt something break inside me. Something snap loose and fall away. My stubborn desire to do things my way, to trust only in myself, was exposed and I relinquished it. That act of surrender brought release.
I was on my knees in the empty cell, though I have no concrete memory of kneeling. The cloud of mixed up confusion and insanity that had engulfed me lifted, and it felt like a physical burden had been removed from my stooped shoulders and back. Undiluted and unquestionable joy filled me, permeating every fiber of my being. It felt like my windowless cell had been inundated with the most glorious sunlight that surrounded me and penetrated to my core. I finished the hymn with a joyful smile and laughter on my lips. “Kings and kingdoms will all pass away, but there’s just something about that name.”
The next several hours and days were spent in concerted communion with my Creator. Hymns, choruses, and songs of worship that had been instilled in me as a child, but long forsaken, came back to me. Each one was a cherished gift that I sang out in a sincere and joyful noise. At my request they eventually gave me back my Bible, and I combed it for further comfort and direction.
On the fifth day of my suicide watch I was pulled out to see the psychologist, and I greeted her with an ecstatic grin. I probably appeared manic to her. I apologized for my earlier lie born of panic and fear. I told her I wasn’t suicidal and was ready to go to a cellblock. I still didn’t want to go, but I’d come to understand that the strength of Christ within me could be relied upon to see me through whatever what come my way.
The intervening years have brought me heartaches, death, divorce, laughter, upheaval, depression, joy, disappointment, setbacks, doubt, and incarceration that seemed to have no end in sight. Throughout it all, the truths I learned and the supernatural touch of grace that I experienced while on suicide watch remain as constants, pointing me back to God’s love and mercy.