The day ended in havoc. My parents were trying to subdue me enough to get pajamas on me, brush my teeth and put me to bed. They were working with my psychiatrist from home to switch my medications. He would call every couple of hours to check on how things were going. Things were not going well. I had descended into a psychosis that would prove to be the end of sanity as I knew it.
It was preventable; it had all been preventable.
Earlier that day, I warned my psychiatrist and my mother that I needed to go to the hospital. However, for reasons having to do with insurance, location and transportation, I was not brought to the hospital – not yet anyway. That trip would come later when an ambulance took me in for traumatic injuries, frostbite and hypothermia. But I am getting ahead of myself.
As my parent’s readied me for bed, the belief that we were all in imminent danger took hold of my mind and would not let go. I believed that the house – or more specifically, the furnace in the basement of the house – was about to explode. You see, the house was a historic landmark built in 1914, and the heating system was nearly that old. So, on that cold, January night, heat percolated throughout the house like fire in the belly of a dragon as the house in turn, belched, gurgled and exhaled heat as though in the midst of some horrifying, fiery indigestion.
In the grip of my belief that the steam heat sounds were signs of imminent disaster, I ran downstairs to the basement to check the thermostat on the furnace. The gauge read 140 degrees Fahrenheit. I called both 911 and the workman, who handled the heating system to report our precipitous peril. The workman assured me that the temperature was normal. However, 911 was ready to respond, which gave me great relief. Only, at the moment when the person on the other end of the line asked for my address, I lost my nerve, and hung up. When that person called back, my mother got on the line and explained that “my daughter has psychiatric problems,” and that “no, it will not be necessary to come.” No one came.
My parents tried to get me to put on my pajamas, brush my teeth, and go to bed. I followed their commands but the conviction that the house was about to explode never left my mind. Later that night, when my parents were sleeping, I awoke to the smell of smoke, which was likely an olfactory hallucination. Not knowing I was in the midst of a delusion, however, I removed the shutters from the family room window, broke the glass with my elbow, stepped out onto the second story balcony, and jumped.
I continued my quest to find help. I searched the backyard and saw a light on near the coach house, where I lived. However, earlier that afternoon I had gone to the coach house to get a change of clothes and had locked the door behind me. That escape route was a no-go.
I then spotted a light shining like a beacon from the porch of my neighbor’s house. I headed toward the light. Only with my first step, I sunk to the ground in pain. My right leg crumpled beneath me as I realized I had landed on an iron grate and not soft padded snow. I had no choice but to crawl on hands and knees to my destination.
One of the coldest nights of the year, the 14 degrees below zero wind whipped through my cotton-thin pajamas. I made my way through thigh high snow drifts, passed through the blanketed boughs of bushes, crossed a brick driveway, and climbed five steps up to my neighbor’s porch. The cold settled into my bones.
I knocked and cried out, but no one answered the door. The world slept that night – deaf to my cries for help. The real trial had only just begun. Waiting. And so I waited. And waited. My fingers began to turn white. I tucked my feet under my pajama bottoms so my toes might escape that fate but to no avail. By some miracle, my mother had given me pajamas with a hood. I tucked my head and ears beneath it. The warmth overwhelmed me. But I was not to escape unharmed.
As the night wore on, I took in the scene trance-like as a thousand winters passed before my eyes. Heading toward unconsciousness, I made one final effort to call out for help. Still no answer. However, I noticed a light in the sky and renewed my efforts. Within the hour, day broke, and my neighbors opened their door to find me frozen and broken on their stoop.
They wrapped me in blankets. Though I could not see or hear them, I could feel their presence. They saved my life. Sane or no, they saved my life.