How I Talked a Suicide Jumper Down

I was in my early 40s and head of an audio-video department at an optometry school in Memphis.  My office was on the 9th floor.  Next to my desk was a floor to ceiling window that provided a pretty uninteresting view of the rear of a four-story motel and parking lot, a dead end ally, and the roofs of some commercial buildings.  There was rarely anything in view to distract me from my work.

At the end of the motel there was an open stairway that was seldom used, so around mid-morning one day, my attention was drawn to a young man sitting on the stair railing on the forth level.  Waiting for his wife to get ready, no doubt.  A while later, I noticed he was still there.  HummÖ a family squabble, maybe?

When I came back from lunch a bit after 1:00, he was still there.  Now, it was becoming clear that this was not what I had assumed in the morning.  I started to reach for the phone to call the motel.  Then that little voice that we so often ignore said ďNo, go check it out yourself.Ē  I didnít have any pressing work for that Friday afternoon, and I was the boss, so I went.

When I reached the landing between the third and fourth levels, the young man started screaming at me to stop.  ďDonít come any closer or Iíll jump!Ē   He was very agitated, so I stopped on that landing below him.  We could see each other clearly.  He was disheveled and wild-eyed, unshaven and dirty, but fairly well dressed Ė not homeless looking. 

I started trying to engage him in conversation.  He did not respond to my attempts.  Rather, he continued screaming for me to go away.  After a while he calmed down enough to begin to respond.  I learned he was waiting for the police to come, so he could jump in front of them.  (Glad I didnít call the motel.  They surely would have called the police.)

Little by little over the next few hours, he begin to open up and relax.  A day or so earlier, he overheard his mother on the phone with the hospital arranging to get him recommitted.  He ran away and hid from his mother and anyone who might come after him.  He said he slept in a tree at night.  He tied himself to the tree with his belt so he would not fall in his sleep. 

Finally, after four hours, he agreed to come down and go home with me.

What the hell am going to do?  Iím not prepared to deal with a guy in the midlist of a psychotic episode.  I had done some counseling as part of my church work, but never like this.  I had a psychologist friend; perhaps he could help.  But first, I needed to get the kid cleaned up and fed.  A long, hot bath and food improved the situation quite a bit.

He finally agreed to having my friend Scott come over to talk with him.   Scott arrived and took stock of the situation, and then dashed my hopes for help.  He reminded me that his specialty was experimental psychology; he was not a clinician.  After he left, I was able to get my Ďwardí to bed.  I didnít sleep well that night wondering what to do.

My memory of Saturday is a blur.  By Sunday morning he was rational enough to be reasoned with.  He was adamant that he would not go home.  Eventually, he suggested he was willing to go to his grandmother on a farm in Mississippi, not far from where we were in Memphis.  I was elated that my nightmare was nearing an end. 

As we approached the turnoff to his grandmotherís farm, we passed a little roadside general store.  He got excited and said he saw his motherís car.  I pulled in and he jumped out to go to his mother who was sitting in the driverís seat.  I saw her face.  It was not one of happiness, more like horror.

I was anxious to get as far away as fast as I could.  Later, when I had calmed  down, I realized I should have taken the time to talk with his mother and explained what had happen over the several days since she has last seen her son.  I regret not doing that.

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