It was five years ago when my husband first brought the turtle home. I was 35 at the time, and I had been slowly killing myself with notable moments of deliberation for 17 years. It was early fall by then and already fairly bitter outside, and the turtle had no business being out at all. However, I didn’t know that then. In fact, I didn’t know anything at all about reptiles. They had always seemed so alien and cold to me.
He had found the little creature walking in circles beside his car, and moved it, but an hour later it had come right back again. He said he’d brought it in to show the cats, but it was likely more than that. I usually started falling apart as soon as the leaves started to change, and knowing my husband, he thought any break in the monotony might buy him a little time… He knew very well that by the time winter had fully settled in I would be despondent. He saved up his time off all year round for those days… the days that, no matter what he did, he couldn’t reach me. He had learned to keep watch because you couldn’t always count on me to tell you that I simply couldn’t do it anymore. After twelve years, he knew the signs that the psychiatrists always failed to see.
What he didn’t realize was how sick the turtle was when he brought it in. Its eyes were swollen shut, it rattled in its shell from a summer of starvation, its shell was lacquered with several shades of nail polish, it wheezed through lungs heavy with a respiratory infection, and larvae had hatched beneath its scales. It was a sad little creature that was not equipped to even survive the fall, much less a hibernation until the next spring.
I can’t tell you why I didn’t just put it out. I called every animal rescue and forestry service that I could find, and they told me to do just that. It had to live or die on its own.
I couldn’t do that.
Luckily, I had a professor who had specialized in turtles, and between him and one rare vet, I learned a lot about turtles that winter. I learned how to force down antibiotics, how to stimulate eating, how to scrub out the larvae living in the raw flesh around his scales, and apply eye drops and Betadine.
It was the coldest winter we had had in years, and for me, the mornings were like a battle inside my head. So much of me had been done with living years ago. The medications I took had taken their toll, and an irresponsible psychiatrist had prescribed a dangerous amount of Lamictal which had resulted in a chemically-induced brain trauma. That winter was like an endless game of charades while I tried to recreate the connections to what had been a rather large vocabulary. I felt like I was trapped in my head, caught in a never-ending roundabout of slow self-destruction. I felt like I wanted to die. I felt lost. It was like a constant undertow.
And each morning, I told myself that I would get up because someone had to take care of the turtle. Each night, I told myself that if I took my life, there would be no one to take care of him. He would die, and it would be my fault. I don’t know how many times I told myself that. I would get up and struggle through the hours of medicating and redressing. On the nights when all I thought about was the end of all the chaos in my head, I would fall asleep with him on the couch, and wake to find him burrowed beneath one of my knees. It was interesting to be, for the first time, the strong one in any type of relationship.
I sang to him. I quoted Shakespeare and poetry, and when he opened his eyes, I remember how stunning those bright red eyes had looked to me. They were beautiful and wise and hopeful. Turtles are one of the few creatures that will kill themselves in the wild. They suffer from depression, anxiety, stress, and a variety of obsessive behaviors. I remember thinking how amazing it was that an animal that suffered so much could be so ancient. In fact, they predate the dinosaurs.
I don’t know when I stopped having to tell myself those things, when I stopped having to actively decide to continue breathing for one more day. Maybe it was gradual, or maybe it was a sudden momentary lapse. I do know that, at some point, I stopped killing myself and started living… maybe for the first time in my life.
It has been five years now since my husband brought the turtle home. It has been five years since I last tried to end my life. I don’t think about it anymore except in retrospect, and I do so with staggering clarity. You see, I never expected to live this long. I had always assumed I would take my own life.
Sometimes it’s the simple things that keep us going, especially when the complicated ones seem so overwhelming; when there’s too much chaos, too many emotions, too many possibilities and impending disasters.
No one can give you a reason to live. You have to find it for yourself. Until you do, try simple things. For me, it was a turtle.
Totally relate. And though I know it’s ultimately beside the point I can’t help wondering if Turtle is still with you. Thanks for caring for him no matter what.
Turtlez was the first of our four permanent turtles here even though I continue to take in “guests” every spring and summer. He will probably outlive me.
Great story, Deena, love the black / white / color photo, and he is a beautiful turtle, too. Glad you’re doing better. And I agree, continuing to live, including doing things that bring joy and meaning into your life, does get one through the psychiatric poisoning fests / hard times. I’m also curious whether you still have the turtle, and what’s his name?
That photo is actually the work of the photographer, Wagner Abercrombie.
Turtlez is still here with me. A few years back, we took in a female Eastern box turtle hatchling from a construction sight. In a few years, the hope is that they can be mated, and their hatchlings released into the wild. P
Please tell Wagner that a woman who graduated from the number one ranked art school in the country loves his photo. And best of luck in mating the turtles.
I will certainly tell her, and I know she’ll be excited to hear it! Thank you so much for your kind wishes!
Thanks for this beautiful story. So glad that you and the turtle are here.
Great story. My pet Shih-tzu dog was so important to me during difficult times. Being able to care for a vulnerable, helpless creature makes one feel strong and caring and less vulnerable/helpless oneself.
This may sound crazy but I think animal spirits and plant spirits may be taking to sensitive people and when we don’t know how to listen, we go ‘crazy’. Animals are becoming extinct in large numbers; Whales, for example are killing themselves. I think you tapped into a consciousness of another being in trouble.
whales have stomach full of plastic http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2016/mar/30/plastic-debris-killing-sperm-whales
I can see that. I also think that animals create a more simplistic mirror of ourselves.
Not to mention bombarded with Navy Sonar.
Thank you for the reminder to focus on little things when this big ole world is too much. I agree that life can be so hard. I’m glad that you and your turtle came together and helped each other keep going. This is a beautiful and touching story and I will carry it with me.
Beautiful story, beautiful message. Simple things can bring us so much joy we had not expected.
I had a similar experience with feeding birds during the winter. I think birds are look beautiful and sound beautiful and started feeding them with a bird feeder in the fall. Then the birds depended on the food. In the icy cold winter only I could help keep them alive . Every winter day I checked to see the snow and ice was clear of the openings for the seed in the feeder and made sure they had access to food. This helped me to survive winter.
It’s funny, isn’t it? If I had known at the time what I was committing myself to, I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t have done it. It would have seemed so overwhelming. I guess it’s one of those things that we only do when we don’t stop to think too much about it. We don’t have time to think about what’s in it for me… Maybe it’s because we don’t do those things or have any expectations that these actions have so much impact on who we are. I’m glad you survived.
How sweet and simple. A competent psychiatric clinician would have advised her to do something like this on year 1. But finding one of them (assuming you’re looking for them outside of a “Mad in America”-type community) is as hopeless as expecting to be rescued on the highway by a caring couple. The vast majority of psychiatric clinicians who read this piece won’t congratulate Mrs. Hoblit for devoting her limited physical and emotional resources to saving the life of a dying, displaced animal. None of them will acknowledge the compassion, perseverance, inquisitiveness, or love Mrs. Hoblit was capable of, even at her most ill. Instead, those clinicians will berate Mrs. Hoblit for “self-medicating” with the turtle and for “making her husband to play doctor”. Hell, I bet they’ll even berate Mr. Hoblit for “enabling” his “manipulative” patient-wife. Because this story is emblematic of caregiving at its finest, I am confident that, in time, the majority of psychiatric clinicians will add Mr. and Mrs. Hoblit’s brave acts of generosity to their roster of feel-good anecdotes of “low-functioning ‘mentally ill’ people” and “beleaguered spouses of ‘mentally ill’ people”. However those psychiatric clinicians spin this beautiful story, they’re going to equate the Hoblits with whomever put “several shades of nail polish” on their turtle.
I wasn’t sure exactly how to respond to this comment at first. I started out defending myself point by point, but you know… It doesn’t really matter. I’ve been seeing psychiatrists since I was six. Imagine the money I could have saved had I simply adopted a turtle instead.
There’s no need to defend yourself. I wasn’t trying to insult you. Why, I can’t remember, but I was writing about your story from the perspective of the quacks. Believe me, that’s odd for me. I can’t recall another time when I’ve done that. But, I did – and still do – feel respect for your humanity and empowered by the way you recognized how to start TRULY living. You are absolutely right – a turtle would have been cheaper AND safer than psychiatry.
So glad that you and the turtle survived. Thanks for this beautiful story.
I was hoping that you’d share this story with us since the day that you mentioned the turtle in passing as the being who helped you care enough to keep going. I believe that somehow, you and the turtle were meant to meet. I am so glad that the two of you are doing well.
For me it was my cat; my loving and adoring cat who would pat me on my cheek with one of his front paws as he put his cheek to mine.
It’s rather amazing that you recalled that. I always feel a little weird telling people about my relationship with my turtles. I think so many people see pets more like property than an actual relationship that is built over time, but it’s really so much more. Pets are the ones we tell when we’re too afraid to tell anyone else because we know they won’t judge us.
Absolutely right. I am my cat’s caretaker, not his owner. He has a personality of his own that adds so much to our household. He is a being in his own right and he knows it. Life without pets would be dismal and gray. My roommate says that he always knows when I walk into the yard when I get home from work because Sweeny Todd, the cat, runs to the door to be sure and be there to meet me. Pets give us their unconditional love, no matter what.
Thank you Deena. For me, it was a cantankerous cat that nobody but a cat-mom could love. If anything happened to me, she would have to have been put down.
Add to that her Imperial Behaviour – she would look at me like, “You WILL be giving me service for the rest of my life, right?”
And what could I do – but go on living? I owe my life to that curmudgeon of a cat. (and she taught me a lot about caring about someone besides myself)