Last Thursday morning I was driving over the Tay Road Bridge on my way to work with the Women’s Rape and Sexual Abuse Centre in Dundee. Half way across I noticed a red shape on the outside rail and squinted to see what I thought might be a new road sign.
As I drove closer the shape became clearer, the shape became a woman, a young woman sat astride the outside rail looking over the edge into the water below. She was hunched over holding the rail. At that moment I knew why she was there, her presence out of context with the monotony of the grey bridge. She was dressed in red with short bright blonde and purple hair, not a road sign, but the signs of her intention was clear.
I stopped, but realised quickly that I had already travelled past her, I put my hazard warning lights on whilst traffic continued to thunder past me. The cars and lorries seemed not to have seen her at all, they didn’t even slow. I couldn’t drive on, I couldn’t leave her in the balance between life and death. I was scared. I phoned 999, they told me they had received a lot of calls, where was she on the bridge, I replied half-way, she was half-way over the bridge and half-way over the rail and half-way between life and death. She had been seen.
I had to get out of the car, no one slowed behind me, the lorries swept past, and the bridge vibrated beneath my feet, then a white car stopped behind me, she was on the phone, I got out of my car carefully, watching the traffic, this was dangerous for me, I had stopped to help and scared I was going to get run over. I moved back past the white car and towards the girl on the rail, the white car gave me a feeling of protection and shelter from the speeding traffic.
I stood below and near to her, she lifted her head, I told her my name and asked her for her name “Doesn’t matter what my name is as I am going to die”, she looked over the rail into the water. The wind was blowing and I felt the chill, I too looked into the water which swirled and eddied beneath the bridge. I felt sure if she allowed herself to fall, she would disappear into and under the water. I didn’t know how long she’d been there; she hadn’t jumped or fallen so there was hope. I knew this meant she was feeling ambivalent about falling off and ambivalent about dying, she was holding the rail tightly and she was astride but there was a look on her face as she seemed to be considering letting go. She had one leg on the bridge side, the living side and one leg on the outside, the dying side.
I didn’t stand very close, touch her or try to pull her in, I needed to keep myself safe. I began to talk with her, I told her my name and how I had seen her. I wanted to know her name, Anna, what had happened to her? She was an inpatient waiting to have ECT which she was sure wouldn’t work, nothing was working, she was a burden to her family and friends, things would be better for everyone if she was dead.
I was beginning to recollect the ASIST suicide training I had done 3 or 4 years ago and Tony Whites work on suicidal ambivalence, to make contact with the “death side” of the psyche before the “life side”, to understand and hear what’s happened to bring her to this point. I said to her that she must be in unbearable pain to want to die, she agreed, she had been thinking that dying was the best thing to do, she couldn’t stand feeling this way anymore, she had suffered with depression and nothing had helped or worked (medication, psychiatric help, hospital, mental health care) and no one really cared about her anyway. I told her I felt very sad hearing how much she had been through, how hard life had been for her and that she wanted to die.
At this point the Police arrived, the traffic on the bridge stopped and there was an eerie silence while the cold wind whipped around us. A police officer approached and introduced herself and I told her about what had happened to Anna. Anna began to look more and more into the water, at one point she moved her inside leg up the rail, signalling her intention to fall. We asked her about who she loved, her partner and her cat (no one else did, especially not her family or mother), and began to talk about them, that they cared for her and how sad they would be if she died. I told her that I cared, she began to cry, I cared enough about her to stop and come and talk with her, the police officer concurred. Anna began to make eye contact with us and then look again down into the water. She then said “You’re going to arrest me if I come down, aren’t you?” to the police officer who replied “No Anna, I am not going to arrest you, you are clearly in crisis and when you come down I am going to take you back to the hospital and tell them about what’s happened”. I said to Anna that I had coffee in my car and hoped she liked cappuccino, the coffee was for her.
Anna looked at us in turn and briefly into the water and began to move her outside leg slowly, she was very cold and this took effort, we didn’t touch her until she was over the rail and safe, she began to cry and we touched her then. I went to my car and brought her my coffee. I had promised her this, she took the coffee and sipped it slowly, I told her how glad I was that she was safe, I touched her shoulder and her cheek to make contact and to show her that I cared. The police officers either side of her held her arms gently and led her to the police car. I walked back to my car along the silent empty bridge, got in and turned the hazard lights off, I felt so cold, I put the heating on full and continued my journey to work. As I left the bridge and joined the busy traffic in Dundee it was as if what had happened felt as if a dream, I had woken up from an eerie interlude and carried on my day, no one around me had known what had happened gave this a feeling of unreality.
Once I arrived at WRASAC I told my fellow therapists what had happened and had a de-brief of the whole incident, they were wonderfully supportive and offered me positive unconditional strokes. I was so happy to be with them and felt safe and cared for throughout the day. My family were very supportive, although my husband expressed his anxiety about having put myself in danger, I had told him about what I had done to risk assess the situation and acknowledged to him and myself that this was risky and how glad I had been to see the police.
I attended clinical supervision 2 days later and recounted the incident there in the safe and supportive environment of my peers and supervisor who gave me more positive unconditional strokes, I felt very cared for and well stroked! I feel fortunate to have such wonderful support.
On reflection I know that I couldn’t have driven past her, I felt a connection with Anna, as a fellow human and had some understanding of her distress. I also felt that if this had been a friend or member of my family about to harm themselves, I would want someone to stop and offer a caring presence, even if they hadn’t been trained or know what to do.
If you are reading this, I would encourage you to consider taking an ASIST course, or First Aid Mental Health course in the same way that you may have done basic Life Support or Resuscitation training. So many people’s lives have been saved by passers-by acting quickly to resuscitate after an accident or heart attack. What’s so different in being trained in offering someone a lifeline when they are in distress? Of course I know not everyone can or will be saved whether it’s from a physical or mental injury and not everyone feels they have the skills to stop and help and that’s OK. All I ask is that you take a few moments to think about it. (Carol Remfrey Foote: May 2016)