Christen McGinnes and her father.
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.
"I walked around the house and straightened up a little bit," says McGinnes, of McLean. "Because I knew that the police and friends and family would be coming to the apartment, and I wanted it to look nice."
Late last month, McGinnes was scheduled to undergo her 33rd surgery since her suicide attempt. The bullet that entered under her jaw destroyed half her teeth and part of her face. Recovery has been tough for the 45-year-old former data management specialist, and 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.
A downward slide
McGinnes loved life, she loved her dogs, and she loved to laugh. But in 2009, 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," she says. "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, McGinnes 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 says.
McGinnes realized tidying up wouldn't do much good if the place looked like a crime scene.
"I did think about blood," she says. "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," McGinnes says. The balcony's walls, she realized, were sturdier and more likely to withstand the bullet.
In planning her suicide, McGinnes spent a lot of energy figuring how to reduce the burden on 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," she says.
"Most people think that suicide is the ultimate selfish action," McGinnes says. "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."
The act itself
After straightening up, and just one hour after making her decision, she decided it was time.
"I remember everything," McGinnes says. "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 says 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."
That's right, she pulled the trigger, and to her surprise, 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."
McGinnes 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 — ever caring, ever considerate — she 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," McGinnes says. "It was so much louder than I had expected. And almost immediately I couldn't see."
The bullet shattered her jaw, destroyed her right sinus, bounced off the bone of her nose and exploded, decimating her right eye. It didn't pierce her skull. McGinnes 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," she says. "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 OK. You just have to get better.'"
From suicide to trauma survivor
Laying in her hospital bed, McGinnes experienced an emotion she didn't expect: "I was devastated that I ruined my face, but I was so grateful to be alive. So thankful," she says. "I believe it was a miracle from God. I believed that an angel grabbed that bullet and saved my life."
McGinnes decided to keep a journal of her experiences, and her recovery. Staffers at Inova Fairfax Hospital saw her optimism, and asked her to volunteer with the Trauma Survivor's Network. Now McGinnes visits trauma victims and lets them know she was also a trauma victim — a trauma survivor.
"I know what it feels like 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," she tells them.
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," McGinnes says. "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? 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," she says. "It's something that comes from the inside. And the fact that I destroyed my face was not where my beauty lies."
Laying in a hospital bed just 24 hours after undergoing her latest surgery, McGinnes was on a lot of pain medication. She was also in pretty good spirits. Her first jaw replacement surgery failed because the bone died; the second failed because her new jaw broke into three pieces. But surgery 33 "went very well," she says. "This time they went in and took part of my rib and replaced the entire jaw with rib and metal plates."
On the mend, in more ways than one
McGinnes' 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 have been praying for her. "I feel the prayers," she says. "I feel that I'm surrounded by love and good thoughts and when I close my eyes, I can feel the presence of healing."
McGinnes still has another four or five surgeries to go, which she expects will take about a year. After that, she says, "I'm going to go back to school and become a nurse."
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.
"There are people who care about you," she says. "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 OK."
[Music: "Flacana 10" by Melodium from Flacana Flacana]