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"Disaster narrowly averted" or "What I'd do differently now."

2005-03-24 - 3:07 p.m.

I was backpacking through Europe in April ‘99 when I ended up spending a few days visiting a very cool guy who worked in the U.S. Air Force military police. We were out with some of his buddies when someone mentioned something about wearing trench coats and my confused reaction brought a dawning comprehension of, “Oh my God! She’s been traveling and doesn’t know!

They were talking, of course, about the massacre at Columbine, which had just happened. This latest Columbine-like shooting in the States has prompted some memories of mine to surface, some more uncomfortable than the one above.

In the Fall and Winter semesters of my first year of grad school, I was having a tough time. I had always made friends easily and expected to LOVE grad school. I even remember thinking before I started that in a few short weeks I’d be ensconced at my new school and have a totally new routine and new set of friends to add to those I’d made in undergrad. I was looking forward to it.

The sad fact is, I HATED grad school and it was a slap in the face for me to discover this. I hated my prissy new roommates; I hated the unfriendliness of the new school; I hated the fact that my boyfriend at the time had chosen to go on a co-op work term in Ottawa when I’d partly chosen my southern-Ontario school to stay close to him (but only partly – I’m not that foolish – it was one of the top schools in the country for what I was studying); I hated the lack of routine that left me floundering and feeling like a total fraud for having gotten in. I lost at least 10 pounds in the first six weeks I was there. And things didn’t end there. The boyfriend and I broke up, I started dating someone new and half his roommates and friends completely hated me, etc., etc. ad nauseum.

What I didn’t recognize as a major factor in my stress over that long, long winter was my interactions with another person I considered a close friend. We’d dated briefly and disastrously years earlier and were still struggling to keep our past conflicts out of the close friendship we’d formed since. To my knowledge, I was the only one he felt he could talk to at the time and he was very, very depressed. He wouldn’t go to therapy back then and I somehow thought I could handle being his sounding board. He was failing all his classes; he was running out of money and not eating properly, hiding in his room all alone for days, sometimes seeking solace in some solitary smoking-up.

He tried to kill himself and it didn’t work. He asked me to get him something from my lab at school so he could be successful. I, of course, refused. I don’t know how many hours I spent with him trying to convince him to stick around, stay alive. When he confided that he had a gun and had to nightly go through the detailed fantasy in his head about taking it to school (where I went as an undergrad) and blowing people away before turning it on himself, just so he could get to sleep, I tried to make him promise to never, ever make that fantasy a reality. I tried to convince him to call me, call the police, call someone for help if he ever found himself on the brink. Failing that, I tried to impress how important it was for him to not take anyone with him if it came to that point.

Thank God it never came to that point.

Why am I writing this? Because I look back now and realize how monumentally stupidly I handled that situation. What I should have done, since he couldn’t bring himself to do it, was called for help from someone equipped to handle situations like that. I should have gone to the university psych services, or even the police. I should have snuck into his room when he wasn’t there and taken his gun and turned it over to the authorities. But no, I relied on my belief in the basic decency of my friend and on the force of my own persuasion and personality to avert disaster.

The fact that he didn’t do it is, well, there are no words for how good that is. I believe I was a small factor in this – I spent a lot of my time and emotional energy trying to keep my friend alive that winter and I did give him a place to get his demons out in the open – but I don’t believe anything I did was a guarantee and I should not have left things to chance when he was so close to that edge. If you ever find yourself or someone you know in a situation like that, DO NOT DO WHAT I DID. Call in reinforcements and don’t try to “handle” it all on your own. If things had gone the other way, I would have forever felt blood on my hands.

There is, fortunately, a happier turn to this story. Though it took a few years and at least one more cry for help in the form of throwing himself in front of a moving vehicle, eventually my friend sought professional help. He is alive today and even admits to sometimes being “content” with his life. He and I see each other when I go to Toronto and he made the trip up to Ottawa to celebrate my wedding. I think we will always be friends.

As for me, I ended up taking a step back and a deep breath: I took the summer semester off from school to get some of my own shit together then went back and gritted my teeth through the rest of my program. I might not have gotten one lasting friend from that school but I got my degree and I have to admit I’m proud of that fact. I’m also thankful; thankful that the name of my undergrad university does not evoke the same response that the name “Columbine” does.

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