Content warning: This column contains details about suicidal ideation.

On the day the Francis Scott Key Bridge collapsed, my father called me around 6:45 a.m. to see how I was doing. I was asleep and missed the call but woke up to his text about a half hour later.

“The Key Bridge is gone. Are you OK?”

I didn’t understand the message. What did he mean “gone”? Still groggy, I called him back and he told me the bridge was hit by a massive cargo ship. The videos are surreal — like something out of an over-the-top Hollywood production. I spent most of the day in disbelief even though the media coverage was overwhelming.

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The Key Bridge was special to me — special to my dad, too. I almost felt like I had taken it for granted. I thought it would always be there. The collapse of such an iconic and seminal structure didn’t make sense to me. As the day progressed, I processed carefully, a little bit at a time. My mind felt fractured.

I’ve lived in and around Baltimore my whole life, and this was my bridge. For almost as long, I’ve struggled with mental health issues. Some biological — deep thinking and intense nervous system responses were written in the genes. Some situational — traumas and toxic relationships laid the foundation for a harsh inner critic and a general lack of self-worth. There were times in my life when my mind truly was fractured.

In 2009, the fragmentation reached crescendo, marked by my first and only full-blown manic episode. It lasted six months. When the chemicals came down, they came down hard. I regretted so many things. I felt worthless and unlovable, which wasn’t new, but the intensity of it certainly was. After the mania, I fell into the deepest depression I’ve ever experienced. My lowest of lows lasted a full year.

Almost every day during that year, I researched ways to kill myself. I joined forums where suicide was the topic of discussion. Every night before I slept, I prayed not to have to wake up to face another day.

How I held a job and functioned at all during this time in my life is still beyond me. Food had no flavor, music didn’t make me feel anything, and everything seemed pointless. I oscillated between impending doom and apathy, carrying around self-hatred and self-pity.

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I often fantasized about parking on the Key Bridge late at night, climbing as high as I was physically capable of climbing and swan diving into the waters of the Patapsco River. These intrusive thoughts became all-consuming every time I drove over. I’d assess the climbing structure. How high could I make it? I wondered if someone would be able to stop me. What is more embarrassing than a failed suicide attempt? I worried that if I didn’t make it high enough, it wouldn’t be enough to get the job done. If I did make it up high enough, I imagined the descent would quickly shift from relief to exhilaration and then end in terror.

Eventually, the depression and suicidal ideation became so unbearable that I reached out for help. I called my mother, and we went to the emergency room. I was mortified and ashamed, but desperate to feel better.

I remember my father, who had up to this point been fed up with my behavior, stroking my hair while I laid in the hospital bed waiting — still crying even though my eyes were barely open. Sheppard Pratt Hospital was the destination, and I arrived in the wee hours of the morning. I don’t remember much of the intake, aside from finally making it to my room and seeing my roommate on her knees, praying hard, rocking slightly. She looked at me, smiled, whimpered “hello” and got back to her prayers.

In the three days I spent there, I became aware my mental health issues are considered a cake walk for some. There was a staggeringly powerful reminder that so many things are relative. I received an official diagnosis, medicine and plenty of educational materials. The “throwing spaghetti at the wall to see if it sticks” process was getting more precise at least.

The weeks that followed were difficult, and there was still much work to be done. I leaned on my dad during this time. We found places to take walks and talk. There were multiple long discussions and comfortable silences at Fort Armistead, where the bridge served as our centerpiece — often painted with sunset.

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One day within those first few weeks, we took his rarely used inflatable boat out and pushed it to its limit. We started near MedStar Harbor Hospital and went all the way across the river to Nick’s Fish House. He let me talk while we floated. He offered advice sparingly and support abundantly. It felt like a spiritual release, a necessary part of our healing.

The Key Bridge was our backdrop. My dad had no idea about the dark thoughts I’d had in relation to it. I didn’t want to add that element of awareness to his memories, so I didn’t share them. We docked our blowup vessel at Nick’s and had dinner. We probably stayed a little too long because on our way back, it got dark.

The bridge seemed menacing in the dark, but somehow, it helped us navigate. Our voyage made us feel small and hurried. It was far less therapeutic than our lovely float across just hours before. We made it back, and we’ve both held onto this memory for many reasons. It was a triumph and a learning experience. The Key Bridge was a character in the story, so we admired her a bit more intensely.

Later in the day on March 26, my dad and I reminisced about our adventure. He said, “That bridge has a special place in your and my trajectory.” My response: “Very special. I choose to look at this as a literal disaster, but regarding our trajectory, it’s symbolically powerfully positive. I don’t genuinely want to kill myself anymore. I still joke about death and maybe I still don’t want to do life sometimes, but I don’t really want to die. Our Key Bridge adventure was at the tail end of all that. The beginning of the healing process. And now, I’m happy with who I am for the first time in my life.”

I’m processing the loss of the bridge by making it about myself in some ways. We do that. It goes back to what I mentioned about relativity. Our brains must try to “make it make sense” and we can’t look at things from any other perspective except our own brain.

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I hope my story speaks to others in this difficult time. This is a tragedy. Tragedy always requires a difficult healing process — unless you give up. We won’t give up.

We’re Baltimore, and the bridge will rise stronger and more capable than before after sorting the broken bits from the water, planning for reconstruction, with hard work and elbow grease, some detailed crisis prevention. It will be a long and difficult process, but it will happen. It happened to me. It wouldn’t have happened without my dad. Let us not forget new beginnings and beautiful things can come from tragedy.

Whitney Morris is a Baltimore native who currently lives in Dundalk. She works as an analyst in the packaging distribution industry by day and is carving her path as an artist, singer and writer.

If you or someone you know is experiencing a mental health crisis, call or text 988 to contact the 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline.

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