Wichita man lost hand, gained life

Ben Craig carried a pint of Jack Daniel's up the rocky bank and onto the railroad trestle that crosses the Arkansas River just east of the John Mack Bridge.

"I remember throwing my wallet and ID and whatever money I had into the river," Craig said. "My plan was simple: Just lie on the tracks after passing out. I believed I was going to be cut into three pieces.

"One train came by, and I let it go."

He doesn't remember what it felt like when the second train hit him, severing his left hand as it knocked him 100 yards down the tracks and into the river.

Last week, nearly 18 years after the failed suicide attempt, Craig was back in Wichita reliving the near- death experience while researching a book about his life. He said it will carry a simple message for people suffering, as he was, from severe mental illness.

"I just want to tell them that there is hope, and they're not alone," he said.

A life of mental illness

Craig, who lives with his wife in Richmond, Ind., said suicidal thoughts first came to him when he was 6. It would be years before he was properly diagnosed with major depression and bipolar disorder.

"On top of that, I'm a recovering alcoholic," he said. "And I have asthma and severe allergies."

While attending South High from 1985 through 1988, Craig and his underage buddies would go to the trestle at Greenway and Wassall to drink. He said it was a thrill when trains passed overhead.

In 1998, a doctor trying to help with his depression suggested that he move to St. Louis to live with his father.

"I did move, and my problems went with me," Craig said.

Craig finished high school in St. Louis, and ended up living by choice in a homeless shelter. He came back to Wichita in the spring of 1992 and found a job busing tables at a Furr's restaurant.

That September, he said, he quit the job as life seemed to be falling apart around him.

"I was miserable," he said. "I hated my job. I wasn't taking my meds. I felt worthless and hopeless. I felt isolated. I had just had enough.

"I was more disconnected than I'd ever been."

As his thoughts turned to suicide, he remembered the trestle where he'd go drinking with his high school buddies.

"I thought this would be a perfect place — foolproof," he said.

The walk to the trestle

On the night he was supposed to die, Craig didn't have the money to pay the rent on his downtown Wichita apartment. He turned in his apartment key and started walking toward the trestle.

"I left everything behind," he said. "I planned on being dead."

He stopped at a liquor store on Pawnee, then cut through a residential neighborhood to get to the trestle.

"I was determined to go through with it," he said. "If I chickened out, I was going to be homeless."

Craig said he remembers walking to the south side of the trestle to get away from the often-busy bike path on the north side. He opened the bottle of whiskey.

"It doesn't take much for me to get drunk," he said. "The next thing I remember, I was waking up in ICU at St. Joseph (Medical Center).... I was disappointed that I hadn't succeeded.

"Then I felt sharp pain, and there was a humongous bandage on my left hand."

Doctors told him he lost two pints of blood. They said the cold water of the Arkansas River probably kept him from bleeding to death.

The recovery

Craig spent three weeks in the ICU before being sent for further treatment to the Topeka State Hospital. At the time, he said, the protocol was to handcuff all patients being driven to the mental hospital, which closed in 1997.

"I laughed when they brought out the handcuffs," he said. "After they handcuffed my right arm, I brought up my left arm. The officer didn't know what to do. He finally just said 'nevermind.' "

Craig spent a year in the minimum-security psychiatric hospital.

"I could write a book about my experience at the Topeka State Hospital," he said. "It was very boring at times, very monotonous."

He lived in a ward with 20 or 30 other people, he said. People of all races, all ages, both genders and all backgrounds.

For the most part, he said, life was uneventful. People would usually take their prescribed medications.

"It's when people refuse to take their meds that problems come up," he said.

Craig was released from Topeka State in October 1993 and returned to Wichita. He got an apartment at the Shirkmere at Second and Topeka.

He said he found one of the keys to his recovery just two blocks away at the First United Methodist Church at 330 N. Broadway.

"I had known of God before, and I believed in God," he said. "I just hadn't had a personal relationship with him."

Craig started going to Sunday school classes, and he met Paul Stevens, a former Boeing engineer who is now a pastor in Sedgwick and Bentley.

"When I first got to know him, he obviously had lot of struggles," Stevens recalled.

Craig said it was Stevens who encouraged him to join in the church's Walk to Emmaus, a three-day spiritual renewal program that is intended to strengthen and develop the church and its members.

Although Craig credits God for a big part of his recovery, he gives equal weight to the Breakthrough Club, which offers wide-ranging support for those with mental illness.

Former Breakthrough director Barb Andres remembers Craig's early days in the program.

"Bless his heart, he just really struggled with his depression," she said. "When it got bad, it got really, really bad."

She said many suicide attempts are made in the cooler months, when there is less light and fewer opportunities to be outdoors.

"A lot of people with depression really struggle in the winter," she said. "They always have a tougher time in winter."

She said Craig seemed determined to overcome his illness.

"I've worked with people who were really bitter and angry, but that's not Ben," she said. "Some people kind of drag people down, but Ben would drag people along with him."

Craig said he has a title for his book: "A Miracle on the Tracks: How Losing a Hand Saved My Life."

"I think God has a purpose for me, and I think the purpose is sharing this message," he said.