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To the Man Who Helped Me Find Purpose Beyond Mental Illness

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Editor’s note: If you experience suicidal thoughts, the following post could be potentially triggering. You can contact the Crisis Text Line by texting “START” to 741-741.

To the man who helped me find purpose,

I’m a 25-year-old male who has only recently started getting his life together after years of socially isolating myself and substance abuse. I have struggled with anxiety for as long as I can remember (although only recently realizing that’s what it was) and major depression since my late teens. I regularly have existential crises or depressive episodes, which result in considering suicide, and I have a lot of trouble sleeping due to frequent nightmares. When I was 22, I finally decided it was time to get off my backside and do something with my life. I chose Nursing. My mother was a nursing manager in aged care facilities my entire childhood, so it seemed like a natural pathway for me to take.

Fast-forward to a few weeks ago, and I am now a qualified Endorsed Enrolled Nurse, the Australian equivalent of a licensed practical nurse (LPN), and have recently got my first job in a very small aged care facility… working night duty. “Great!” I thought, “I don’t sleep well anyway, so I might as well be earning money while driving myself ‘crazy,’ right?” The first few nights were easy, getting to know a couple of the residents, doing personal cares etc. Everyone told me that sometimes nights get hectic; I didn’t believe them… until Ron started buzzing. Ron (not his real name for confidentiality reasons) is an old blind man, whose wife — who also lived in the facility — had passed a few months earlier. Most staff would tell me Ron had not properly grieved about his wife due to his dementia and was beginning to have challenging behaviors.

Night after night, Ron would constantly press his call bell, and when I entered the room and asked “What can I do for you, Ron?” his reply was often, “Not much I think, I’m just in agony, I can’t sleep and want to commit suicide (sic).” Unfortunately, there wasn’t much we could do for Ron; he had been trialed on every medication under the sun and nothing seemed to work. So, what I would do was give him his regular sleeping tablet, turn on his music and sit and talk with him until he managed to fall asleep. We spoke about his wives, children and family, and we got to know each other rather well quite quickly. I opened up to him about my personal struggles with mental health — how I was regularly seeing a psychologist to try and cope with my social anxiety and suicidal thoughts, and how I had attempted once when I was 19 years old. I believe it was just as therapeutic for me as it was for him. It became a nightly ritual; I would show up for work at 10:30 p.m., and by 11:15 p.m. I was in Ron’s room, hearing the familiar sound of the Moonlight Sonata and holding Ron’s hand as he opened up and vented about his frustrations with his current situation. I’d tell him what I had been up to since I saw him last, lied about having a girlfriend so he could have a little vicarious happiness through me, talked about my favorite music and films, and how I was coping with my suicidal thoughts. We had only known each other a few weeks, but already he was calling me his best mate. (Being the only male most of these residents interact with regularly, it has become common for the male residents to take a liking to me.)

When I first started working there, Ron was about as independent as an old blind man could be. He would have no problems getting out of bed and getting to the bathroom on his own, could feed himself and was generally an easy guy to work with. However, his condition deteriorated very rapidly. Within two months of being there, Ron could no longer even stand up, let alone walk, go to the toilet or eat by himself. He would constantly yell for help even though he didn’t require any, waking up other residents and causing many of the staff to become frustrated with him. But still, whenever he heard my voice for the first time in an evening, his mouth shot up into a smile completely uncharacteristic of him. One of the assistants I was working with saw this once and commented on how, in the years she has known Ron, she has never seen him smile like that. Believe me, going from years of feeling worthless and alone to feeling like the most important person in someone’s life is a wonderful feeling. I am still depressed, still sometimes have debilitating anxiety, and quite often cry myself to sleep because I see no end to the sadness and misery that is my pathetic, worthless life. But it feels good to know someone is relying on you to keep their life complete. Little bits of positivity have started shining through the cracks due to the friendship Ron has brought me.

Last week, Ron had a major stroke and became unresponsive to verbal stimuli. Still, I would turn on his music, sit and talk to him for a while, and hold his hand until he started snoring. He passed away last Thursday. I got a text message around an hour after getting home from a shift that his breathing had stopped, and he no longer had a pulse. I thought I would take it harder than I did. I sat down, cried for a few minutes and realized he was finally at peace. He had lived a long, happy and very interesting life, and finally got the release he had been praying for for so long. I’m sad I’ll never get to spend another night consoling him or just talking nonsense for no reason at all. But I knew the day would come eventually and I’m glad it came quickly once he began to die.

So, to the man who helped me realize this is what I want to do with my life, to the man 70 years older than I am yet somehow still loved a lot of the same music I do, to the man I held hands with as we cried, and to the man who helped me find purpose. Thank you; you did more for me than you will ever know, and I hope you know that even though the last few months of your life felt like agony, you weren’t alone; it wasn’t for nothing. You have given me a reason to keep going, and I will, for you, and for the next person who just needs someone to be there.

If you need support right now, call the Alzheimer’s Association 24/7 Helpline at 1-800-272-3900.

If you or someone you know needs help, visit our suicide prevention resources page.

If you need support right now, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255, the Trevor Project at 1-866-488-7386 or reach the Crisis Text Line by texting “START” to 741-741.

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Thinkstock photo via Zoonar RF

Originally published: October 30, 2017
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