I love to share this true story because what happened had a ripple effect that continues to this day. It is not a small ripple, like from a pebble tossed into the ocean. It is a huge wave emanating outward, like from a boulder smashing into a pond.
It is a true story about a convenience store clerk who saved a life.
The life she saved was that of a woman who lived in a small town in the Midwest. She was in her 50’s, lived alone on a small acreage at the edge of town. She kept to herself and estranged from her family except for an occasional visit to her younger sister’s house and less occasional conversation with her only son, over the phone.
The woman suffered from mental illness. She had visions, saw and heard things that were not there. She thought co-workers were following her home at night. She was convinced her car had been vandalized while in the company parking lot. She wore a hidden microphone while at work, to catch employees in “horrible lies.” She wrote rambling notes on pads of paper, detailing co-workers, managers and previous bosses plotting against her to harm her, even kill her. The plot also included her sister, her son, her neighbors, the Federal Government, The Air Force and The National Guard, where she had served with distinction years before as the 2nd woman in the U.S. to achieve Spec 5 status in Communications.
That woman from 20 years before would not have recognized what she had become.
One afternoon she tossed a VCR through the front window of her trailer. She was convinced it was bugged and that voices were coming out of it. She purchased a gun permit. She worked for the Post Office. She was a pop culture cliché that was all too real.
Her son and sister had patiently listened to her increasingly vitriolic ramblings and had tried to reason with her, only to be placed on her “enemies” list. They watched her bizarre behavior escalate to the point where they feared for her physical safety. The VCR through the window was the last straw. They visited the county courthouse and filled out the necessary paperwork to have her involuntarily committed for 72 hours for psychiatric evaluation.
Later that afternoon the sheriff pulled up to her trailer, knocked on her door, and took her away in handcuffs, to the psychiatric ward at a nearby hospital.
A psychiatrist diagnosed her as bi-polar with paranoid schizophrenia and delusional disorder. She received one-on-one and group treatment, and was prescribed a strong concoction of Lithium and other antipsychotic drugs.
She was released from the psych ward after three days and began living the zombie-like life of a heavily medicated paranoid schizophrenic – the cost of making sure imagined voices and real paranoia don’t make people do things like hurt themselves, or others.
She was still depressed, and still suspicious – she expressed these emotions to her sister and son through a dreamy haze of semi-slurred speech. Some days were better than others but none were good. She struggled to get out of bed in the morning, and took lots of time off work. Her family remained alarmed.
But there are other “medicines.”
Some months later, on a bright fall Sunday afternoon, the woman visited the town’s only gas station/convenience store to buy some snacks. The clerk behind the counter, “Susan,” greeted her with a huge smile and said, “Hi!” In spite of her drug-induced haze, the woman was able to flash a smile back at her. The clerk rang up her items and engaged the woman in small talk, and the woman lingered a bit before walking back out to her car.
Two hours later, the woman returned to the convenience store.
She wasn’t there because she forgot to buy toilet paper, or soup, or the latest gossip magazine. The woman returned simply because she wanted to feel the warmth of the clerk’s kindness – again.
A week later the woman returned to the convenience store. The same clerk was there (she only worked on Sundays) and again she greeted the woman with a huge smile and a “Hi!” and again the two women engaged in conversation, this time longer than the last.
And so it went for several weeks. Each time they met, they spoke more, shared more, learned more about each other. Walls were lowered. Trust was gained. A friendship began to grow. And something else, something miraculous…
The woman started to feel better.
The fog began to lift. She began to feel like her “old” self, she would later say. She had more drive and more energy, and felt like she had more reason to live – primarily because of the bond that she had created with Susan.
I will never forget the day I got the phone call from my mother, telling me about this extraordinary woman she had met who worked at the convenience store.
My mom had been through hell and fought like hell and put us all through hell. But there was no sense of that in her voice now. The woman on the other end of the phone sounded – normal, like the sharp, funny, sarcastic, witty, loving mom I knew before her mental illness began to envelop her like venomous snakes dragging her down into a pit of raw sewage, suffocating her, drowning her, destroying her smile and her love and her light.
Somehow, she had managed to make her way up out of that cesspool. This mom was my mom, the mom I knew, the mom I thought I would never hear or see again. As she happily told me about Susan, it struck me that this total stranger had done more to bring back my mother’s sanity than reams of prescriptions and hours of psycho-therapy.
It was a beautiful moment inside a beautiful day that I will always remember.
I will also never forget the call I received months later – January 20th, 1990. Mom’s sister – my aunt – calling me to tell me that Mom had taken her own life.
It was and is a sad and tragic end to her life – but not to her story. Yes, we eventually lost Mom to her sickness. But Susan gave us months, and time, with my mom that we never would have had without her kindness and warmth and generosity. For that, we will always be grateful.
Yet my warmest appreciation of Susan comes from knowing that she didn’t just save my mother’s life. She saved mine, too.
From that moment of such sadness and loss that occurred over 26 years ago, to this one, now, as I write this, has been a long, twisting journey of pain, heartache, understanding, setbacks, healing and most important, action. It is from that pain that I was eventually moved to turn it into my power, to start my own company, to take what I learned and share it with others, to give my mother’s death a greater sense of meaning and to give my life a greater sense of purpose. That is why it brings me such joy to bring you the true story of the Convenience Store Clerk Who Saved a Life.
So what do we learn from it?
Today you and I will have the opportunity to impact the lives of people we have never met. Today we will encounter others who are fighting a fight that none of us can see. Today we will have the tremendous opportunity to share a big smile and a kind word and gesture that maybe, just maybe, may pull someone back from the brink of self-destruction. We have that power. Let us use it to have a positive impact and create huge ripples of good that touch everyone around us, leaving this beautiful world an even better place, for the greater good of us all.
If you or someone you know is struggling with suicidal thoughts, please call The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, 24/7, at 1-800-273-8255.
Jonnie Wright is President and CEO of The Buyosphere and Buyosphere University, a team of coaching professionals dedicated to helping shop clients improve their numbers, their culture, their brand and their impact. Our Buyosphere team works with hundreds of businesses across the country on the art and science of delivering exceptional service to their customers and their employees, for the greater good of us all.
To find out more about what The Buyosphere and Buyosphere University can do for you and your business, contact Jonnie at:
web site: www.thebuyosphere.com