My boyfriend took 60 sleeping pills

He's suicidal and I'm trying to help him, but I don't want to be his mother.

By Cary Tennis
Published October 15, 2004 7:00PM (EDT)

Dear Cary,

It's been a little more than two months since my boyfriend took 60 sleeping pills before we went to bed. We live in different states; I had initially planned on going home that Sunday night, but he talked me into staying. It wasn't hard, as we only really have weekends together. An hour after we went to bed, I woke up to a noise. He was vomiting in his sleep. I tried everything to wake him up. I thought it must be food poisoning; I had no idea. He has been staying with his parents, so after turning him on his side, splashing water on his face, shaking him and yelling to please wake up, I ran and got his mother. We called 911. She asked if he had taken anything. I said, no, I had been with him all day ... except for two hours when I had gone to visit my own parents.

Then she found the note. It was rushed, very short. The paramedics came, as did the police, and eventually I found the two empty bottles of sleeping pills in his car.

Turns out, this was not his first attempt. The previous one also took place on a Sunday night when I was in bed beside him. It was severe diarrhea, we had had shrimp that night, he said it must have been food poisoning and I had no reason to think otherwise. He has a history of depression but had never let on how serious, and I had never even considered killing himself a possibility. We were (are?) in love.

Two months later, he seems to be doing better. It has taken a few trials, but he seems (or says) that the meds he is on now are working. He says he feels better. He is no longer drinking, at all. The problem is, I have a hard time believing him now. His medical insurance is so poor that while he has been able to get meds prescribed, he has not yet been able to see a therapist. As a result, I constantly analyze his words and actions, look for "signs" that I obviously missed the first time around, and am generally hypersensitive and overly emotional. I cry a lot. He doesn't get it. Once, he even told me to "lighten up."

When we get into arguments -- about his need to be more proactive about finding a therapist, about what certain things, like his continuing irresponsibility with money or his insomnia mean -- he gets defensive and angry. Later he concedes, but I don't know if it's because he really understands what I am now going through, or if he just feels like he has to comfort his sad girlfriend.

At the same time, I know that comforting me is probably not his first priority at this point and so I later feel guilty after a breakdown. At times (when we're not directly talking about him) he has been very patient and sweet with my crying fits, or when I just want to talk. He is a good person, caring. We have been dating for almost two years, but have known each other for more than 12 (since high school).

A large part of his depression stemmed from the fact that he is 29 and living with his parents, has a job he doesn't like, and lives in a town where there are constant reminders of things he has failed in -- past jobs, a marriage, college. And so I made some calls. A former colleague's husband works in exactly the same industry that my boyfriend dreamed of getting into. I asked if maybe they could have a conversation, just for advice. Turns out the man had a vacant position, had my boyfriend come in for a trial, and has now hired him. He starts in two weeks. He is moving in.

I think it is a great job and a necessary change for him. But I am battling constant anxiety that I am now taking in a man who I can never be sure is mentally stable, who promises he'll set up an appointment with a local therapist before he comes. (But what if he doesn't? Do I refuse him coming?) What do I do if he tries this again and his parents aren't there to help? I am scared. I want to believe in him. I think this is the fresh start he needs and I believe that, had this not been a factor, I would be completely ready to live with him, but honestly, I am not yet over it all. Every day, I think of that night. He thinks of life as "before" (the attempt) and "after" -- but I have a harder time doing so.

I want to help him as much as I can. I am stable, with a good job and good friends in this city, and I believe a change is what he needs. But I do not want to be his mother or even his caretaker, especially because he so hates feeling like he is being mothered or taken care of. I need to know how to deal. Am I jeopardizing our relationship, or myself, by letting him move in so soon? I am, after all, the one who found him this job ... I just didn't know it would happen so quickly. What do I do?


Dear Help,

My compassion is aroused more sharply by your boyfriend's plight than yours. So this is addressed to him:

Dear Suicidal Boyfriend,

You need a reason to live. Nothing makes sense without it. Because once the long sleep closes over you, you've got nothing left, not even a self to feel sorry for. And you leave the living with nothing but the sound of grieving and anger and the will to forget.

But they can't forget you, of course. So you become a stain. You become a scar on the back, a limp in the leg, a stutter in the voice, a sty in the eye, a catch in the throat, a loss in the wind, the car nobody drives anymore, the nothing that itches like nothing else; you become everything gone and ethereal and hungry, everything not quite right and not quite there and not quite ever again the same; you become the floorboard that squeaks in the night, the wind that gets in through the cracks, the secondhand smoke that kills the barmaid; you become all those things that don't make sense and don't add up and don't help us get where we're going. And all the while you could be instead the thing that made the difference, the final 20 cents for a hamburger and fries, the arm the old lady leans on when she has a dizzy spell, the shadow cast on a thirsty dog, someone to open a door for someone, someone to make a child out of nothing but a fiery impulse. So why become the crumbs and sand at the bottom of the bag, the rain-stained receipt in the trunk of the car, the canceled checks in the drawer, the unused bottle of perfume, why become what doesn't matter but won't go away, what is both tragic and annoying; why undermine the grace we seek against the tedious dark?

You need only persist. People write to me and tell me how painful it is to persist. They tell me I don't understand quite how bad it is to persist, the depression, the anxiety. They say a person has a right to end it. I say life is better than death. Even in my darkest moments, I believe that. I say where there is life there is hope.

As to you, dear letter writer, since you have already made the decision to let him move in, and since a promise of employment has been made to him that appears to be contingent on his being there in the city, you should honor the promise you made. But you may need to make some hard choices soon. He may need to live on his own for a while. Living with a lover who has attempted suicide puts you in great emotional peril. No matter what you do, you cannot ensure that he will thrive and cast off his demons. He may or he may not. You just never know. If you should lose him while he is living with you, it will be the kind of thing one sometimes never gets over. The best you can do, it seems to me, is insist that he avail himself of any and all help that is available, and make it clear that it's very possible he may need to get his own place until he's stable. Meanwhile, be sure you take extra good care of yourself.

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