MS. REBECCA SHEIR
We turn now to a woman who defied the odds to such an extent that, well, she's able to tell her story today. See, a few years ago, Virginia resident Christen McGinnes made a major, major decision. She decided she no longer wanted to live. But, as Matthew Schwartz tells us, while Christen's life didn't actually end back then, a whole new life began. And a quick word of warning that this story contains some material that maybe disturbing to some listeners.
MR. MATTHEW S. SCHWARTZ
The morning Christen McGinnes woke up and decided to kill herself, the first thing she did was figure out how to minimize the impact on others.
MS. CHRISTEN MCGINNES
I walked around the house and straightened up a little bit.
Because I knew that the police and friends and family would be coming to the apartment, and I wanted it to look nice.
I met with Christen last month at her home in McLean, Va., the day before she was scheduled to undergo surgery, her 33rd since her suicide attempt. The bullet that entered her jaw destroyed half her teeth and part of her face. Recovery has been tough for the 45-year-old former data management specialist. It's difficult for her to talk. But rebuilding her life has been nowhere near as difficult as the slide into despair that brought her to the barrel of a gun.
That's from a home movie of Christen taken in 2008. Back then Christen loved life, she loved her dogs, and she loved to laugh. But not long after that video was recorded, everything started to go wrong.
It started when I lost the job that I'd had for 18 years, and with that a sense of purpose and identity. I also lost a good friend. My grandmother passed away. My dog died. I went through all of my savings. I lost my insurance, and most importantly I stopped taking my medication. And that's when I fell into a deep depression and had horrible debilitating panic attacks.
And so, on the morning of Oct. 22, 2010, Christen awoke and made a decision. She would end her life, using the .357 revolver she kept for protection.
It was a conscious, deliberate decision.
She realized tidying up wouldn't do much good if the place looked like a crime scene.
I did think about blood. And that was part of the reason that I shot myself on the balcony.
She also worried about, of all things, collateral damage.
I knew that the bullet would come out of my head and possibly go through a wall.
The balcony's walls, she realized, were sturdier and more likely to withstand the bullet. Talking to Christen, one is overwhelmed by how much thought she was giving to the comfort of other people, even the method she decided on was, in part, to make sure she could still help others.
I wanted to shoot myself in the head because I'm an organ donor and I wanted to preserve as much of myself as possible. Most people think that suicide is the ultimate selfish action. It's not. It's actually an effort to be considerate.
I got to a point where I felt like I was a burden on everyone, and I couldn't bear it anymore. I couldn't bear being a burden. That's why I didn't make any phone calls. That's why I didn't reach out. I didn't want to make anyone feel like it was their fault.
After straightening up, and just one hour after making her decision, Christen decided it was time.
I remember everything. I picked up a little Christmas ornament angel to put in my hand. And I went out on the balcony and I sat down, and I said a quick prayer asking God to forgive me and to deliver me safely to heaven. And then I put the gun under my chin. I pulled the trigger, and discovered that there were only four bullets in the five chambers. So I basically won at Russian roulette.
You pulled the trigger and it clicked?
It clicked. It clicked and I laughed. And I thought, I can't believe that after everything I've failed at, I failed at this too.
She thought maybe it was a sign from God that she shouldn't do it. She looked through her phone and thought about calling someone. But then Christen -- ever caring, ever considerate -- put herself in their shoes, and thought about how much that phone call would ruin their day.
To get a call from me saying, "I'm sitting here on my balcony about to kill myself. Drop everything in your life and come for me now."
She put the gun back up to her chin. This time, when she pulled the trigger, it didn't click.
It was so loud. It was so much louder than I expected. And almost immediately I couldn't see.
The bullet shattered her jaw, destroying her right sinus, bounced off the bone of her nose and exploded, decimating her right eye. It didn't pierce her skull. Christen was still holding the angel when she blacked out. The last thing she heard was the strain of sirens in the distance.
I woke up in the hospital, and my dad was holding my hand. And he says to me, "The only thing that you have to do is heal. I've taken care of everything for you. Everything will be okay. You just have to get better."
I was devastated that I ruined my face, but I was so grateful to be alive. So thankful. I believe it was a miracle from God. I believe that an angel grabbed that bullet and saved my life.
She decided to keep a journal of her experiences, and her recovery. Staffers at Inova Fairfax Hospital saw Christen's optimism and asked her to volunteer with the Trauma Survivor's Network.
I got a phone call from the coordinator. And she said, "I think you would be wonderful as a volunteer.
Christen lets trauma victims know she was also a trauma victim -- a trauma survivor.
I know what it feels like to be in that bed and I hope that I can give you a little bit of hope that you aren't always going to be in this place.
Talking about her experience helps her to understand it. She's even turning her journal into a book. She has an agent and interest from publishers.
When I do my volunteer work, every time I speak to somebody and help them, a part of me heals. It's the same with the book. I'm writing about what led to my suicide, and then how I came out of that dark place.
How did she come out of that dark place? Well, she took advantage of free clinics to get the medication that was so crucial. And she was constantly surrounded by family, friends and hope.
My friends were there at every step of the way, making me realize that beauty is how you treat people. It's something that comes from the inside. And the fact that I destroyed my face was not where my beauty lies.
Just 24 hours after undergoing her latest surgery, Christen is in pretty good spirits.
Surgery number 33, and it went very well.
Christen's recovery is going even better than she hoped it would. She attributes that to a few things. Great doctors and nurses, a lot of rest, and her strong faith. A lot of people are praying for her.
Do you feel that?
Yes. I feel the prayers. I feel that I'm surrounded by love and good thoughts and when I close my eyes, I can feel the presence of healing.
Christen still has another four or five surgeries to go, which she expects will take about a year.
And then, after that's done, I guess, what's the next step in your life?
I'm going to go back to school and become a nurse.
Today, as Christen rebuilds her life, she's so confident about the future. And she has a message for people who find themselves where she did, who think they have nowhere to turn.
You aren't alone. There are people who care about you. There are people who are willing to be there for you. All you have to do is pick up the phone and call someone you love, or at the very least call a help line. Because there are services that will swoop in and take care of your needs and bring you out of this dark place. I know how helpless it feels. I know how despondent you are. And you aren't alone. You will be okay.
I'm Matthew Schwartz.
If you'd like to learn more about the Trauma Survivors Network, head to our website, metroconnection.org.
In a minute, D.C. families try to hit the jackpot with the city's new lottery system for schools.
MS. ABIGAIL SMITH
This lottery system takes into account both maximizing the number of students who get matched up with seats, but also maximizing the number of students who get matched up at a place where they really want to go.
That's just ahead on "Metro Connection," here on WAMU 88.5.
WAMU news coverage of labor and employment issues is made possible by your contributions, and by Matthew Watson, in memory of Marjorie Watson. And support for WAMU 88.5's coverage of the environment comes from the Wallace Genetic Foundation, dedicated to the promotion of farmland preservation, the reduction of environmental toxins, and the conservation of natural resources.
Transcripts of WAMU programs are available for personal use. Transcripts are provided "As Is" without warranties of any kind, either express or implied. WAMU does not warrant that the transcript is error-free. For all WAMU programs, the broadcast audio should be considered the authoritative version. Transcripts are owned by WAMU 88.5 FM American University Radio and are protected by laws in both the United States and international law. You may not sell or modify transcripts or reproduce, display, distribute, or otherwise use the transcript, in whole or in part, in any way for any public or commercial purpose without the express written permission of WAMU. All requests for uses beyond personal and noncommercial use should be referred to (202) 885-1200.