I was admiring the roses when I read the news. They were beautiful, and a deep, almost salmon, pink, just opening, and completely unblemished. How is it possible that three dollars can buy twelve perfect long-stemmed roses?
I was lost in their beauty, and lost in loving the life I live when I broke away as I often do for the summons of my phone. I was stunned to read that a well-known, often-referenced veterinary behaviorist had committed suicide. She had hung herself, at age forty-eight. Two years younger than me. I didn’t know her, but I had read her papers and watched her videos. She was a gentle and kind soul, a veterinarian who had gone into small animal practice after school only to be struck with the realization that so, so many euthanasias happen because of behavioral issues. Cats that pee outside the box. Dogs that are fearful and aggressive. She went back to school to try to figure out how she could help, and she did, likely thousands of people and their pets. But for some reason it wasn’t enough, and a couple of days ago the pain of getting up and doing it again for one…more…day…seemed, at that point, too much. And at that moment, ending her life was for her, the best choice.
Please don’t mistake me. I don’t pretend to understand. I only tell you that I have looked down into the abyss. I have safely trodden the rim, and have never considered stepping in, but I do know what despair looks like.
Perhaps more than any other medical professionals, the veterinarians I know, myself included, take our failures hard. And I don’t just mean failing because we don’t know enough, or we aren’t good enough. I mean failing to help. And it doesn’t even seem to matter if help was even possible. I’ve seen vets despair when euthanasia is the only humane option, for a pet that they’ve extended the life of multiple times. I’ve seen vets despair when it’s the only option for a pet and an owner they’ve just met thirty minutes prior. For reasons I don’t understand, we hold ourselves to unrealistic ideals and expectations that we set ourselves, and that no one could possibly measure up to.
I write this not because I have the answer. I don’t. But I have felt the despair. It would be a lie for me to tell you that I have contemplated suicide, and thank God I haven’t. I am lucky to have people who love me, and need me, and cherish my presence here on Earth. I come home after terrible days, filled with death and sickness and people who just wish they had never gotten the pet that they have, and I am enveloped in love. I am listened to, and I am cared for. Afterwards, somehow it all gets filed in its place. Maybe Sofia Yin didn’t have that. I can’t imagine living without it.
I decided to become a vet while trekking through the Himalayas. My husband and I were a little more than mid-way through a year of travel, and I had left behind a successful and lucrative career in software sales. It was fine, and I liked it. There was no reason not to plan to return to it. Except that I kept thinking that perhaps I had “phoned it in”, as they say, and not really looked for what I wanted in a career, and that perhaps I had just taken the job that was offered. It’s funny how getting away for a time opens your mind to possibilities, and makes you think about the choices you’ve made in life.
So there I was, wandering through the Himalayas. Not truly wandering, because there was a guide, and an ill-defined path, but at this point in the ten day journey there were big, wide-open spaces, and it was hard to get lost. Scree fields, and swift rivers to cross over suspension bridges, and long, flat rock fields. And for some reason Wiley and I were hiking separately, with a distance of a quarter mile or more between us. I don’t know if he was lost in his thoughts, but I most assuredly was.
I was thinking more and more, obsessively if you will, about the idea of becoming a veterinarian. I hadn’t told anyone, not even Wiley, that it was on my mind. It seemed long past crazy. I had spent more than ten years in software, investing time in becoming who I thought I was. The thought of pursuing another career – wait, not just another career, but one in a completely separate field, and one requiring six more years of schooling – seemed ludicrous.
As I walked I started thinking about how six months or so prior we had been in the jungles of Peru. We had traveled the Amazon River to see wildlife and the people who lived there, but also to experience a ceremony involving a centuries-old hallucinogenic drink called ayahuasaca. There were six of us involved in the ceremony, a group that included me and Wiley, as well as a West Point army physician and his wife. It turned out to be a fairly horrific experience, and I was not only the only one in the group not to puke but also the only one to experience visions. I saw ancient Peruvians in the room, and they were handing me gifts, which I could not see, but somehow knew to be important. They were as real and three-dimensional to me as anyone else in the room.
The next morning I told the shaman who had facilitated our journey about my visions. She told me that people often see very ancient people during ayahusaca experiences, but beyond that didn’t offer any real insight other than that it meant that I was developing a connection with my past. And then she looked at me and told me, in a matter of fact manner, that I was a healer. Startled, I said no, I sold software. But she insisted that I was, and then corrected herself to say that I was meant to be. So on that day in the Himalayas I was thinking of her as well, and what she had said to me that morning.
You pass only a few people, and maybe a couple of yaks as you’re walking in the Himalayas. The day was startlingly brilliant, and the sky was completely void of anything other than the sun. We were trekking though an area that was somewhat boxed-in compared to some of the wide-open fields we had been through the previous days.
Let me interject and say that I’m one of the most grounded people you’ll meet. I don’t really believe in fate, or luck, and I often struggle with the existence of a higher power, although I’m not ready to write that one off quite yet. My supernatural experiences, a la séances and summonings, ended pretty much simultaneously with my slumber party days, packed with my Ouija board. I don’t believe in ghosts, or witches, or even visions, for that matter. My rational mind most definitely has the upper hand at any given time.
I remember glancing upwards and to my left, to see a sheer granite face rising one hundred yards from the valley floor. There I saw, as clearly as if it were real, written in a cursive style of hot pink and turquoise letters reminiscent of something adorning Barbie’s dream house the phrase:
Why the Hell Not???
I stopped, and I stared at the message for several seconds, then shut my eyes, shook my head, and opened my eyes back up. The message was gone, but it’s clear to me that it had been real, and that it was addressed to me. The intent seemed clear, and I interpreted that vision to mean that there was really nothing stopping me from going to vet school, and that somehow I was meant to be a vet, and it was high time I got on with things.
Once I got home and started figuring out just how one goes to vet school, I began to understand what I was up against. At the time there were only twenty-eight vet schools in the U.S. and Canada, and despite having class sizes that varied from 80 to 130, each of them got over 1000 applications per year. And having a business degree meant that I had to complete at least three semesters of required classes in subjects like organic chemistry, biochemistry, and microbiology, before even applying.
But somehow I got in, and here I am. And I’m desperately in love with my career, but I can also see why it might possibly drive someone to contemplate ending their life, as hard as that is for me to say. The emotions I feel on a daily if not hourly basis while doing my job – despair, joy, anger, fear – are not for the unstable, or those without a network of support. The rewards are many, but the price is great. They told us at graduation that to those whom much is given, much is expected, and they were right.
So I want to write a book. Because I think that maybe people like Sofia Yinn, while they had so much to give, got very little back, and that’s just wrong. And it breaks my heart to think that others like her, with such talents and such gifts, might succumb to the despair, without seeing the light, without recognizing that they do so much good everyday of their lives. Without giving themselves back some of the love and caring they so freely give out to others. Perhaps it will be therapy for me as well.