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Recognized Social Butterfly

TO REVEAL OR NOT TO REVEAL

 

 

To Reveal or not to Reveal

 

After class, one of my middle-aged students told me that he was very depressed because his wife had just died a few months ago.  I suggested that he see a counselor; he said he'd consider it. But it turned out that I became the only person whom he confided in. At least twice a week, he would phone me about two in the morning. Invariably, he was blubbering drunk as he rambled on about how miserable he was without his abidingly devoted wife. I forced myself to try to make some sense out of his self-pitying laments. He didn't ask for advice, and I didn't feel qualified to give any.

 

Occasionally, I would comment that he needed to get some professional help. He repeated that counseling or therapy wasn't an option because he trusted no one except me. He never told me why he selected someone as narcissistic as I to be his confidant. I certainly didn't deserve that trust, nor did I relish suffering through his tirades against a heartless God who enjoyed tormenting him.

 

But out of guilt and some shreds of compassion, I continued to be a witness (over the phone) to his overwhelming despair. In class, however, the widower seemed cheerful enough, and when we saw each other in the corridors, he nodded at me, made small talk, and never said anything negative about his life.

 

If I had any doubt about how serious his psychological problems were, a week later I was convinced that he was truly damaged. One afternoon at the landfill, I saw a bunch of seagulls hovering over an unkempt man lying on his back in a pile of garbage. I cautiously moved closer, afraid that he was injured or even dead. A moment later, he roused himself a little and stared at me. I then recognized that this derelict was my troubled student. He said only one thing to me: "Leave me alone: I want to die." Then he got up and staggered away.

 

The next day before class, I told the college counselor about my student's possible suicide threat. She wouldn't tell me anything about his psychological profile; confidentiality must be maintained at all costs, regardless of the consequences, but said she's look into it. Yet it was a moot point. My student didn't attend my class or any of his other classes. In fact, no one at the school ever saw him again.

I never found out whatever happened to him. What was my responsibility in this mess? Despite my reservations, I kept the phone lines of communication open for him. I was an attentive listener. Not once did I lecture him or encourage him to wallow in his malaise. But if I had been more involved, more empathetic, would my student have had a better chance to disengage from his obsessive grief? Did I wait too long before notifying the counselor about my interaction with the widower? Could she have set up an intervention against his will?

 

I became so consumed with trying to be a better person that I wanted to literally feel the pain of others, any kind of pain. In one instance, I told a group of friends that I yearned to have the exact amount of pain a buddy of mine was enduring in his broken arm. They all thought that I was seriously misguided. They were right. I had overreacted. Guilt can be a powerful addiction.

 

Although I still agonized over my role in my troubled student's life, I finally accepted that with my limited skills, I had done what I thought was best for him. My intentions were good, even if I had to fight against my basic aloofness. But the most important thing I learned was to consult the school counselor right away if I suspected that a student was unstable. Although the counselor couldn't reveal anything to me, I could reveal everything to her. Those were the boundaries, and I believe that adhering to them substantially reduced the anxieties of future students at risk.

 

At the same time, I feel that a counselor should have the flexibility to let teachers know if one of their students has a severe psychological problem. I once asked a young lady to read a passage from Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet, the one just before Juliet commits suicide. I never would have asked that student to do so if I had known that she herself had suicidal tendencies, especially on her birthday, which happened to be the next day. How did I find out? Certainly not from the counselor but from a female classmate who explained to me that the young lady had skipped class on her birthday because she was probably having her yearly suicidal thoughts. And I had her read those inflammatory lines from Romeo and Juliet

 

The counselor must have had a dossier on the disturbed student. Luckily, the troubled young lady, after struggling with her demons, did not kill herself. I wonder how the counselor would have felt if it had been otherwise. Confidentiality, is it a curse or a blessing?

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