Editor’s Note: The woman interviewed for this story asked that her real name, as well as specific details about her life, not be used in an effort to protect her family from any unwanted scrutiny or ridicule. Charlotte is a pseudonym.
BANGOR, Maine — Charlotte can still feel the cold on her skin. Not just on her skin, but underneath it, in her bones, a constant reminder of what happened just days before.
She nearly died.
She wanted to die, in fact. That’s the sole reason she climbed the railing of the Joshua Chamberlain Bridge in the early evening hours of Monday, April 11, and leaped into the icy Penobscot River.
When she crashed into the water 40 feet below, it was like landing on movable concrete. The cold hit her like a million knives stabbing her at once, paralyzing her movements.
As she began to sink, the water gradually swallowed the light above her until she was enveloped in darkness.
This was her plan.
Charlotte had no intention of resurfacing to take another breath. She wanted to remain submerged until the river’s swift current carried her to the sea, until the cold took her life.
But that’s not what happened.
Less than two weeks after her suicide attempt, during an interview with the Bangor Daily News, Charlotte was remarkably measured in her recollection of the events and circumstances that led her to the Bangor bridge that evening.
She said she chose to share her story as a way to break down the stigma associated with suicide and mental illness and as a way to help others who may feel as she has felt.
Like many others who attempt suicide, Charlotte had tried to end her life prior to April 11. In 1999 and again in 2005, she overdosed on medication, something that has been a big part of her life for many years.
Charlotte lives with bipolar disorder, a chemical imbalance in the brain that manifests itself in manic and depressive mood swings. For years, she has been treated with medicine and counseling and combinations of both. She has endured incredible highs and devastating lows.
Julie Frost-Pettengill, a grief and loss counselor in Bangor, said as many as 90 percent of people who commit suicide have a mental health diagnosis like Charlotte.
Unfortunately, she said, the public does not always pay close enough attention to mental illness, a fact that makes Charlotte’s willingness to share her story so profound.
Days after the event, the woman appeared at once fragile and tough. Articulate but also introspective.
Her background, she said, is typical. She grew up in a rural Maine farmhouse, in a traditional Maine family. After college, she worked for many years in the hospitality industry.
Now that she’s in her mid-40s, Charlotte has come to understand and accept her disorder. She knows that wherever she goes, her mental illness is always with her.
On the morning of April 11, though, Charlotte was determined to end her life. She saw no help. She saw no hope.
“There were some events where I felt and thought — I don’t know whether this was true fact or my perception — that my relationship with my family was severely compromised and that I was in danger of losing some family members from my life,” she said. “I don’t recall exactly why, but it was so devastating to me that I could not imagine a feeling that could be worse.”
Although she didn’t share all the specifics, Charlotte said her distress was building steadily in the days leading up to April 11. She was emotional, approaching a familiar manic state.
For a moment, she tried to imagine how her suicide might affect her friends and family. She tried to put herself in their shoes.
But like so many others who are acutely suicidal, Charlotte could not.
“It was as though I were a 2-year-old who [could not] take anyone else’s viewpoint,” she said. “My brain was narrowed.”
Frost-Pettengill said desperation associated with suicide is often so powerful that it trumps all other thoughts and feelings.
Charlotte had a suicide prevention plan — a series of steps meant to control her impulse — that she created after her first attempt back in 1999. She would call her therapist if the thoughts arose. She would call a suicide hot line if her therapist was unavailable. She would call 911 if the hot line worker was not helpful.
But she didn’t follow the plan.
Instead, she went forward with a different one.
The Penobscot River in Bangor, she knew from living in the city, had taken many lives, both accidental and by suicide, over the years.
She decided that her best bet would be to jump at a time when the water was high, when it was running fast and when it was deathly cold.
The jump itself lasted only a few seconds. Charlotte tucked her limbs and braced for impact.
“Without thinking about it, I took a very deep breath right before I hit and the cold and the pressure of the water pushing on my body prevented me from exhaling,” she said. “I could not breathe out. My eyes were open under the water, and as I sank the water became darker and darker until it was black.
“Then my body rested for a moment and I waited for the current to take me.”
But the current failed to carry Charlotte to her death. Instead, she rose back to the surface.
That’s when it happened.
“People who do not have a spiritual practice in their daily lives may not understand or believe this, but with my eyes open in the water, I saw an area very close to me, slightly above me, that was light.
“Not a shining light, but just an area of water that was white and I wanted to touch it. And I reached out my arm. I reached upward to touch this light and it felt as though someone was pushing me from behind,” she said.
“That’s what I felt. Like someone gave me a little pat on the behind. I do believe that was the will of God for me to live.”
Charlotte had not taken a breath since the giant inhale seconds before her body made contact with the water’s surface. She was submerged for less than a minute. When her mouth found air instead of water, she tried to breathe deep but the cold enveloped her like a straitjacket.
Her first emotion was anger. This wasn’t her plan. She wasn’t supposed to come up.
Alive but increasingly numb, Charlotte turned onto her back in the water.
She looked up at the bridge, where she had left her purse and other personal items prior to her leap. A long line of cars were stopped on the bridge. People had gotten out of their vehicles and approached the railing. They were staring down at her.
“I did not want to die on the surface of the river with all those people watching me; to die publicly as an entertainment for people just disgusted me,” she said.
She thought about sinking back down into the cold — maybe the current would catch her — but her body would not let her. Within moments, years of cold-water survival training as a child rushed to her muscles. She heard her father’s voice: “Move your arms and legs.”
So she did. She looked toward the river bank. It seemed so far away. She began to swim. She took shallow breaths. She screamed to let the gawking audience know that she was alive.
A woman on the shore yelled back: “Keep swimming!” and “Help is coming.”
She paddled until she was about 20 feet from the west bank of the river, just steps from the Sea Dog Restaurant where patrons ate their dinner. Her strength was gone, her body limp. What little energy she had left was used to keep her afloat, to keep her head above water.
She doesn’t know how long she stayed like that. Probably only seconds. She heard a voice. Rob Angelo of the Bangor Police Department, the first public safety official to respond, stood on the shore.
“Can you swim?” he asked.
“No,” she said.
Angelo shed his vest and firearm and waded into the cold to begin swimming toward her. With a few powerful strokes, he guided her back to land. He placed her on the ground and waited for medics to arrive. She was safe.
The officer looked terrified, Charlotte remembers.
It wasn’t just a look, Angelo said.
“I don’t know how she lasted,” he said in an interview shortly after the rescue. “That water was as cold as it gets.”
The only words Charlotte spoke to the officer were: “I’m sorry I scared you.”
In her mind, though, she was cursing.
“I still wished that I was dead,” she said. “I was very angry at God, the world and all the inhabitants of the world that I was still alive.”
Minutes after enduring the cold of the Penobscot River, Officer Angelo was back at the police station drying off, changing his clothes and warming up. In less than an hour, he was back out on patrol.
Charlotte, meanwhile, was secured on a backboard and placed inside an ambulance headed for Eastern Maine Medical Center, not far from the site of her attempted suicide.
Emergency personnel had stripped her wet clothes. They applied heat packs to her skin. She said nothing.
At the hospital, Charlotte’s mood changed little. For the next 24 hours in the hospital, she was monitored constantly. “Why can’t I just die?” she thought.
Then something else happened. Charlotte had a conversation with a family member, a conversation that offered her a glimmer of hope where she had none.
“I would love to share it because it does give me hope and you can see now I’m smiling when I think about it, but I cannot,” she said.
In essence, it helped her see the profound impact her action had on her family.
Once she was stable, she was transferred to a local psychiatric facility. She stayed for a week, mixing physical therapy with counseling. The staff was kind and supportive. They didn’t let her mope.
“They took that little bit of hope and they repeated it back to me,” she said.
Her hospital stay was not always easy, though.
During one of her days in the psychiatric hospital, Charlotte started to slip into a manic phase.
“I had a really bad day,” she said. ”I felt hyper, like when you drink too much coffee, and irritable. The next thing I knew the filthiest words were coming out of my mouth.”
Charlotte later apologized to the staff for using those words. They told her she didn’t need to apologize. They told her she was sick and needed to get better.
She forced herself to again accept her mental health diagnosis.
“To climb over a low barrier like that and jump was not really a willful act and it was not a selfish act,” she said. “It was a symptom of my illness.”
Frost-Pettengill, who has counseled both people at risk of suicide as well as family members of loved ones who took their own lives, said every suicide or attempted suicide is unique. More important, she said, suicide knows no boundaries or prejudices.
Professionals like Frost-Pettengill — and society at large — will never be able to stop all suicides or suicide attempts from happening, but she said they should never stop trying.
Does Charlotte worry about reaching such a low point again?
“Of course I do,” she said. “It’s part of the mental health condition that I have.”
Charlotte still shivers intermittently, even in a warm room, even while wearing compression garments tight against her body. Her doctors didn’t warn her about that part.
She has been released from the hospital, but she is still being treated regularly.
“Every day, I practice being aware of the things that I have hope for, for the future,” she said. “And also, the things that I can do that I am capable of; that I can make a change in my life or a change in someone else’s life.”
Those thoughts, she said, are counter to the primary thoughts of someone who contemplates suicide, thoughts of helplessness and hopelessness.
But her recovery will be slow. She knows that.
“I have a whole lot of work to do with my family to make things right,” she said, an opportunity she is grateful to have. “There are some things that I have a responsibility to do. … Mainly, I need to be more aware and mindful than I have in the past.”
Hours before Charlotte was on the Joshua Chamberlain Bridge looking down, ready to jump, she had left a suicide note on a dry-erase board in her apartment.
While she was in the hospital, she made sure her words were erased, so she wouldn’t have to be reminded. When asked what she wrote, Charlotte said she would keep those words private.
She has now drafted another plan. It outlines all the steps she should take if she is suicidal again. There is little to stop her from abandoning that plan, as she has done before, and setting in motion a more destructive plan.
The Joshua Chamberlain Bridge was a popular spot for attempted suicides long before hers. In fact, Angelo was involved in a dramatic incident more than a year ago in which he pulled to safety a woman who threatened to jump from the same bridge.
Charlotte said she’s still struck by the serendipity of the name of the officer who saved her life. Angelo. “Sent by an angel,” she said.
She feels blessed that the officer was there when he was, but she wishes it had never come to that. For years, Charlotte said, she has wanted to see a safety fence put up on the Joshua Chamberlain Bridge. She even called city or state officials to see what could be done. She never heard back.
If a fence were there, Charlotte would not have been able to climb over. She may have abandoned her plan.
“I just know I don’t want it to be me or anyone else who ends up in that river,” she said.
When Charlotte agreed to share her story recently, it wasn’t out of vanity or for pity. It wasn’t necessarily to help her cope.
She shared for the countless others who could not share; for the more than 150 Mainers who commit suicide every year, the people “we can’t interview because they’re gone,” Charlotte said.
She shared because there remains a great stigma associated with mental illness at a time when economics have forced drastic cuts in services.
“What is going to happen to all the people with mental illness?” she said. “We’re not going to just disappear. Are we going to die because we’re not getting treatment?”
Frost-Pettengill stressed that there are resources available, but she understood Charlotte’s concerns. The biggest responsibility, she said, is for people to take warning signs seriously; to not be dismissive of any suicidal thoughts or behavior.
Charlotte said to dismiss what happened to her or to bottle it up inside forever would be more detrimental than talking about it. It’s a part of her now. A chapter in a life that she hopes has many more chapters ahead.
Most of all, Charlotte shared her story because she knows there are many others like her, living with mental illness and depression, who will no doubt reach the same point she reached. She knows that they will feel, as she did, helpless and hopeless.
She wants to look into their eyes, every one of them, and tell them they are not helpless or hopeless, that they are not alone.
She wants to help save them.
It might help save her, too.