Dorri Oldsis a suicide attempt survivor.
"I Survived a Suicide Attempt."
Dorri Olds is a writer. She was 54 when I interviewed her in New York, NY, on July 9, 2016.
CONTENT WARNING: graphic description of sexual assault, suicide methods, drug use; strong language around race and class. read with care.
I think, in my family, there’s a suicide gene.
I used to joke about that, but I looked it up and it really could be. It might be. I looked up whether, if one person in a family [dies by] suicide, there has been research that shows it’s more likely that other people in the family have [died by] suicide.
My first “suicide attempt” was when I was five. I say that with quotes, because the fact that I thought of that is so weird. I was mostly treated well. I wasn’t beaten, I wasn’t cursed at. It never made total sense why I was the way I was, but I think it’s bad brain chemistry. I really do.
There also was a disconnect about communicating. My mother yelled at me. I can understand it now as an adult, but she would fly off the handle. I’m sure I was annoying. I’m very persistent. I’m very like, “Look at me! Look at me!” I was also very cute, I’m told. Very adorable. I could get away with a lot before people would get annoyed with me. So, if she would snap like that, I didn’t know where it came from, because I would usually get things like, “You’re so cute! You’re so funny. I love you so much. What a beautiful drawing you did. Oh, you’re so funny.” You know, like this fussing over me, and I loved it. Then all of a sudden, I’d get yelled at. I was really scared, because I felt like my mother stopped loving me. I thought, “All of a sudden, she doesn’t love me. I’m bad. I’m bad.” She would get so mad… and I just panicked.
So, that happened. We were in the kitchen. I pestered her about something and she yelled at me. I ran out and I thought, “That’s it, I’m going to kill myself. She’ll be sorry.” I think I knew about death because my father was a World War II captain in the army, and he had a decorative Nazi sword on the top of the mantle. When we had company, I remember there were stories about the Holocaust. My father was a great storyteller. Like, “We got those sons of bitches.” You know, we’re Jewish. “It was a just war,” he’d say. I grew up with these stories, and I’m sure they didn’t know that little kids have big ears. That must have been how I knew.
We had this tall chair; wicker seat, wood, black. I dragged it over with much effort—because I was five—to the mantlepiece. I climbed up and I was able, on my tip-toes, to reach up and get the sword. I knew it was there. I couldn’t really see it, I was too small, but I got it from the chair. I was going to thrust it right into my heart. Plunge it into my heart and die. Now, it had this sheath. It was leather that went in like a belt would go, you know? Then it was a snap, and my little fingers couldn’t open it. I tried and tried, and I got really mad because I couldn’t open it. There was nothing I could do to get this thing open. I just stomped up to my room, threw myself on the bed, and I went to sleep. I always went to sleep when I was upset. I still do.
Des: I do the same thing.
Dorri: Yeah? It’s a healthy escape. I did that even before I knew it was a healthy escape. I just always did that. That’s my first suicide attempt. If I had gotten it open, I don’t think I would have been able to stab myself in the heart and die. I probably would’ve not been able to do it.
Des: With a Nazi sword, too. How fucked is that, right?
Dorri: I mean, as a kid, I wasn’t thinking about that. I just knew it was a weapon.
Des: Oh, yeah. Retrospect though, right?
Dorri: Yeah! It’s weird. When my father died, we were cleaning out everything in my mother’s house, the house I grew up in in Port Washington. She wanted to get rid of the house, because every room reminded her of my dad. They really loved each other. They were together fifty-four years. Very happy together. We found that sword in the attic, and I can see why it was so hard to open. It was interesting to see, because it was a lot like I remembered it.
I often described things to my mom. As she gets older now, her memory’s not so good, but when I was younger, I would describe that chair, and she said, “Yes, that’s exactly what it looked like.” I described my crib when we lived in Manhattan. I must have been two or three. We had faucets that looked like Mickey Mouse’s gloves. She said, “Yes, that’s true.” They weren’t in photos, so I really have this surprising memory. It could be from being self-obsessed my whole life, I don’t know. I think about things, and I ruminated, you know?
Dorri: And worried.
Des: I believe they call a person like that a “writer.”
Dorri: Yeah, maybe! I was an artist before—well, I was always both. I spent a lot of time in my youth drawing. My mother said when I was a kid, I had a huge belly. It almost looked like a starving kid in Africa with one of those distended bellies. Which isn’t funny, but it wasn’t that. I had this big, round belly, and my mother said when I ran out of paper, I would draw on it with markers. So, if I ran out of paper, I would just draw. I was always drawing. I come from a family with other artistic people and creative types. I always wrote little books. I made these activity books like you might see in Highlights or Scholastic magazine where you’d have connect the dots, crossword puzzles, little stories or jokes, little drawings. I don’t know whatever happened to those. I wish I still had them, because I made a lot of them. I’d stapled them together and put them all in a drawer. My parents think they might have thrown it out, not knowing it was something I wanted. They were really good about keeping a lot of artwork.
So… that was the first suicide attempt. The next, I’m not sure if it was right before the gang rape or right after, but at twelve, I stepped on the third rail and nothing happened. I stepped on it again, and this train worker comes out and goes, “Hey kid! Get away from there, you could get yourself killed!”
I’m thinking, “Well, why didn’t it work?”
The next day in shop class—I was the only girl in shop. I fought to be in shop. I didn’t want home ec, I wanted shop, and I had to fight for it—I asked one of the guys, hypothetically, of course, “What would happen if I stepped on the third rail? Like right now?”
He said, “Nothing. You’re wearing sneakers.”
I’m like, “What?”
He said, “You know, rubber doesn’t conduct electricity.”
Now, I don’t know why I didn’t then go back and take my shoe off, or wear a different kind of shoe. I never did. It’s a mystery to me. There must have been ambivalence. But I really did think I would die instantly, so that was a suicide attempt.
Des: Of course.
Dorri: When it didn’t work, I tried it again, right then. I don’t know why I didn’t try it again afterward.
Des: You mentioned a gang rape.
Dorri: They were classmates. I felt like I was kind of nerdy and a straight A student. I didn’t like the kids I should have been hanging around with; they were mostly upper middle class Jewish kids, and we were Atheist Jews, so I didn’t really know much about Judaism. I didn’t really want to. I didn’t care. But I didn’t feel like I fit in with them, because they went to synagogue and temple, and got bat mitzvahs. If I asked stupid questions, people would be like, “What kind of Jew are you?! You don’t know about Rosh Hashanah?” I felt like they all seemed like little adults and judgmental, and I was intimidated. Like I wasn’t good enough, maybe? I don’t know.
I was also attracted to this group of tough kids. They wore tough leather jackets. This one guy walked around with a pint of Tango in his back pocket all the time. They smoked, mouthed off to teachers, and cut classes.
When the schools merged, three elementary schools went into the junior high from different neighborhoods. A lot of these kids were from a neighborhood that was, I would say, blue collar, and very different than what I knew. It was fascinating. They came from broken homes.
My family was very high functioning, very literary, my parents could do the New York Times crossword puzzle all the time and they both had successful careers; my dad in radio, my mother, a writer. She was a different kind of writer from me—she would research and then write up non-fiction stuff, but not emotional stuff, like a best-selling book on breastfeeding. It’s still best-selling: The Complete Book of Breastfeeding. She wrote textbooks on child rearing and child psychology, which is ironic now, but she’s a good researcher and she would write.
So, I was attracted to that crowd, and this one girl, I thought she was so gorgeous. I wished I looked like her. She had such confidence. She was almost luminous, and just so charismatic to me. I wanted to be her, you know? I mean, as I got to know her. When I first got to know her… you don’t know who’s attracted to that crowd. I just went over and said hi when they were hanging out, and she ended up asking me to come hang out one night in the cemetery. I was like, “The cemetery?” I was really scared of cemeteries.
She was like, “Yeah! It’s no big deal.”
So I said, “Yeah, okay.”
She said, “Wear something…” she probably looked me up and down. I used to wear these decaled t-shirts, hiking boots, and jeans. I was a tomboy. She said, “Wear something a little sexier. Guys like it when you don’t wear a bra.” She was right, and all the guys swarmed around her. They just all leaned in.
I didn’t feel confident at all. I felt like such a nerd. [When] we went out that night, I wore this sexy shirt. I got a clothing allowance.
Des: A clothing allowance?!
Dorri: My mother didn’t really feel like going shopping a lot, so she would say, “Here’s your allowance. Get what you want.” She wanted to teach me how to manage money. It was good, but I, of course, saved the money for drugs and stole the shirts from Roosevelt Field Mall.
I stole this very sexy V-neck shirt, and my mother took it away from me. She said, “You look like a slut.” She was furious. She was scary. I wouldn’t know why she would get so mad all of a sudden. Like, so mad. It was like night and day. She was so sweet, and then so mad. It would scare me. It would make me feel like it was so unfair. It seemed like I was the cause of her moods. If she was happy, I made her happy. If she was mad, I made her mad. When I made her mad, I felt like such a loser—a horrible, bad person.
It might not just be me. My sisters have very low self-esteem also. We felt like she didn’t really like us when she was mad. We felt very rejected when she was mad. We all three felt like that, so I don’t know if it’s brain chemistry or what… but she was very loving when she was loving. It’s like that nursery rhyme: when she was good, she was very, very good, and when she was bad, she was horrid. But she wasn’t horrid. She didn’t beat us. She didn’t say, “You stupid, ugly troll,” but her temper scared me. All tempers still scare me.
Anyway, she took the shirt away from me, but that night I wanted to wear a sexy shirt, so I went up in the attic and went through all the boxes. I figured she hid it in the attic. I found it, I wore it, and I went out. I thought I wanted to look sexy because I wanted a boy to notice me. I wanted a boy to ask for my number. I hate phones now, but we’re talking 1973 or ’74. I wanted to be asked out on a date.
We went to this field. I was starting to dabble in drugs and alcohol, but just a little. There was a joint passed around, so I took a few hits on that. Everybody did. There was a boombox playing Pink Floyd and Led Zeppelin, that kinda thing. Somebody knew the guys in the deli, and they would buy us liquor, so there were some beers. I asked [my friend] if she could ask the guys to get liquor instead of beer, because I hated beer. I knew what beer tasted like because my dad had a beer every night at dinner, usually a Heineken, and I had tasted it and thought it was horrible. I couldn’t understand why anybody would drink that.
They got me some rum—Bacardi Light, which I like. To show off, I was chug-a-lugging. It was like being a rock star, being stoned on pot. I used to think about Jimmy Page and Keith Richards. It was like fantasy kind of stuff while I was high. It’s like that’s what was missing. When I would be high, it was like I wasn’t paranoid, I wasn’t self-conscious, I didn’t feel like a loser. I was happy. I liked that feeling.
I wasn’t really noticing what was going on, and I suddenly saw [my friend] walking off with her boyfriend, holding hands. I didn’t really see where the other girls went, so I assumed they had gone off with their boyfriends. I found out later that they thought it was a weird night and they left. They have nothing to feel bad about. It wasn’t their fault, but it was weird. I thought, “Oh, everybody has a boyfriend but me.”
I’m standing there, feeling like such a loser by myself. Then this guy… he was a little older than us. We were thirteen and he was fifteen, I think. He always hung out. He was the class clown, he was funny. We hung out in the lunchroom and joked around a lot. I thought we were friends. He called me over. He had a girlfriend. She wasn’t there that night. She was more studious. She didn’t hang out much. She had a strict parent. So, he said, “Hey, hey! C’mere, I need a girl’s opinion on something. [My girlfriend] and I got in an argument. C’mere.”
I was overjoyed to be noticed. I skipped over. I was like, “Sure!”
He grabbed me by my mouth, threw me on the ground, and he pinned me with his knee and his hands. The other boys came out from behind a tree. They all took turns holding my legs, my arms, and my mouth. I couldn’t break free. I’d never, ever had any kind of physical violence against me, other than I’d been slapped in the face as a kid once when I was six. That’s about it. Nobody had ever strong-armed me in my life.
I was terrified. I tried with all my might. I couldn’t even move, I was so pinned. I couldn’t scream, because my mouth was covered. It was so traumatic, just that. Then they started putting fingers up my vagina, a dick in my mouth. I bit a hand and then they were laughing. They were fucking laughing. When the dick was in my mouth, this guy goes, “You’d better watch out, man. She might bite it off.” Har har har. They were all laughing.
It was so much more than my little brain could handle. It was a shock. I think I kind of left my body. When I was a little kid, that happened a lot. Even in elementary school, I would feel like my body was on the bed. It wasn’t something I could do on purpose, it just happened. It was like I went up and hovered by the ceiling and I could see myself on the bed. Sizes change from big to small. I found out later it’s called dissociation. I didn’t know that for many, many years. But that happened to me.
After they’d taken turns, petrified me, hurt me—when they shoved fingers up me, it was like scraping in. It wasn’t intercourse, it was hands, but the definition of rape is to enter your body, enter an orifice, without your consent. I didn’t know that. I was thirteen. They were rapists! But I didn’t totally know that.
After they ran off laughing at me, I ran around in a circle, screaming. A therapist, years later, told me that running around in a circle is connected to the dissociation. I can’t remember what she called it, but it’s something where it’s a repetitive behavior, because you’re absolutely freaked out. You’re not even connected. It’s like you had fight or flight, but the wires got crossed.
That trauma gave me PTSD, and I didn’t know it. My way of treating it was to pretend it never happened. I didn’t even totally know what had happened. I knew it was scary. I didn’t know that you call that rape, because you think of rape as intercourse, but I knew it was horrible, and I was afraid to tell.
I was afraid that my father, who was a World War II army captain with a Nazi weapon in the house, would go kill those boys. I knew my father loved me very much. He really loved me. I felt like I was the favorite. I was the youngest and I was very cute, as I said. I wasn’t cute at that time. I was rebelling. I was just starting to rebel. I wasn’t getting along with my parents then, but I was afraid he would kill them, go to jail, and I would ruin my family.
If I told my mother, I knew she would go right to the school. I thought we’d have to go to the police. When you’re a teenage girl, you’re so embarrassed about everything. I had just gotten my period. I had breasts. You’re just not used to all that stuff, and the thought of talking about that? So, I imagined we would go to the school or we would go to the police station, but the biggest fear was that I would be teased, bullied, ostracized.
I landed in rehab at age twenty-six, so that was thirteen years after the rape. My life spiraled down into drugs and alcohol, and then it’s such a circular thing. You take drugs and alcohol, but then your life gets worse. Bad things happen and you need drugs and alcohol because you can’t deal with your life. Worse things happen. You’re stuck in this hamster wheel. Then all kinds of things go wrong with your mind and your physical well-being.
So, that’s what happened. That’s why I think I stepped on the third rail right around then. It might have been before, because my sister had [tried to kill herself] when she was fifteen and I was twelve. She had taken acid for the first time, and she was a very highly anxious person—she still is—a very nervous type. Loud noises made her jump. She’s just very, very touchy. She had taken acid and her voice was telling her to kill herself.
Our family never talked about it. They took her to the hospital. I was told she was going to be fine, not to worry. Then she was wearing gauze bandages on her wrists at the dinner table, and everybody’s like, “Oh, please pass the peas,” and, “Oh, we want another Tab.”
My sister, many years later, told me. I said, “Did mom ever take you to therapy over that?” She said that my mom or dad drove her. I think it was my mom that drove her to the therapist, dropped her off. She went to the therapist, she got back in the car, they drove home. That was it.
I think that the feeling was that the drugs that made her do it. If she didn’t take drugs again, that wouldn’t happen again. I don’t think they realized that a lot of kids take LSD and don’t try to [kill themselves], even on a bad trip.
My mother’s brother, when I was seventeen, I think, shot himself in the heart and died instantly. My mother’s other brother chain-smoked cigarettes. He smoked four packs a day. He had a heart attack. When I was five, he died from a second heart attack. In my family, it was always said he died of a “sudden heart attack,” but you know what? He died because he smoked four packs of cigarettes a day, had a heart attack, and a doctor said, “If you don’t cut down right now, you’re going to die. If you don’t quit right now.” He didn’t even cut down.
There’s some kind of self-destruction in my family. There’s something wrong with depression or anxiety.
So, let me do this chronologically. After the rape…
Des: And the third rail…
Dorri: I got together with this other group of kids. They were mostly black, but I was “color blind.” I was raised “color blind.” I had a black doll. I had a black nanny when I was little and a cleaning woman. My father had black work associates come over. I didn’t see black or white. Other kids in school started calling me “[expletive] lover.” It was horrible.
During the rape, two of the guys were black. During the rape, I think it was [the meanest kid], the shithead—he was Italian, and I think he was going, “[Expletive] lover! [Expletive] lover!” I always wondered, why didn’t the two black guys punch him in the head? It was weird, right?
Anyway, I start hanging out with that crowd. I fell in love. This guy was eighteen and I was thirteen. Five months into it, we had sex. He didn’t pressure me to have sex, which is to his credit. What I didn’t know was that he was a total womanizer. Once I got my period at thirteen, I thought, “I’m a woman now and nobody can tell me what to do. I’ll do what I want.” I was very rebellious. I was fighting with my parents all the time, so maybe that’s when they gave up on telling me, “You can’t see somebody who’s eighteen years old.” They couldn’t really control me.
Anyway, when we had sex, it was so beautiful, so wonderful. I thought we were going to get married. I was a little girl. The next day, he broke up with me for his ex-girlfriend. I loved him. I thought he loved me. We were together five months, which is like an eternity when you’re a kid. The very next day, he went back to his ex-girlfriend. His twin brother later told me that that was something [this guy] did—he would break in virgins and then just lose interest. It was really creepy, but I had no idea.
One night, we were all hanging out and I decided that I had to kill myself. I was in so much pain that he had dumped me. I was in excruciating pain, and I started lighting my finger with a lighter until it started blistering. I wanted to kill myself, but it’s hard to kill yourself. It’s fucking hard, because naturally, you have the survival instinct.
We just kept drinking and smoking pot. I climbed up onto this really high fence and I was going to jump over. The twin brother saw me. He ran up to me and grabbed me. He said, “What are you, fucking crazy? He’s not worth it,” and he threw me onto the ground. Not in a mean way; he’d gotten me off the fence. He was a really sweet guy, actually. I was never involved with him, though.
Anyway, after he broke my heart and after that night, I started going out with his best friend to make him jealous. It worked. He wanted me back, but by that time I was with his friend, and I was like, “Fuck you.” I was happy to be with his friend.
Now, these guys were not my intellectual equal at all. They were from broken homes. They lived in a ghetto part of town. I don’t really know what things appealed to me, but I think it was that they were very into music. I loved music. They taught me how to dance. I love dancing. We had a lot of soul music in my house. I loved the Motown stuff. I think it was the living in the now, not planning for the future. The upper middle class Jewish kids were studious in what they were going to be and where they were going to go to college, and none of that stuff mattered.
At fourteen, while I was with [this guy] one night, a condom ripped. He was really freaked out. I was like, “What’s the big deal? Don’t worry about it.” I didn’t get it. He knew, because I think he had already gotten somebody pregnant at a different time, but I didn’t know.
I got pregnant, and didn’t know I was pregnant. That’s a whole story in itself. I went and got an abortion, because luckily I was smart enough to know, “I’m thirteen. He is sixteen. We don’t have money. We don’t have education.” He was already a drop-out from tenth grade. He lived with his aunt in the ghetto, because his mother was a chronic gambler and a drinker. I thought, “We can’t raise a baby. How are we going to raise a baby? We don’t have any money. He’s not going to know how to raise a kid. We’re going to fight over buying diapers and who’s going to get up in the night.” I don’t know how I knew all this stuff as a thirteen year old, but I had this deep fantasy life; I read a lot, I watched a lot of TV, I saw a lot of movies. I saw this whole thing as my future, and I was like, “I can’t. I can’t.” I knew I couldn’t have the baby and give it up for adoption. No way. I knew I would love that baby. I wanted the baby. So, I had the abortion. That was another trauma. I was fourteen.
At fifteen, I ran away. I was more and more into drugs. By thirteen, I was a daily user. By fifteen, I was writing in my journal, “I have to stop drinking. I have to stop drinking.” I was doing all kinds of drugs. It escalated. I was a garbage head; I would steal drugs out of medicine chests in people’s homes. Whatever came into town. There was PCP. We called it “T” for “THC.” Everybody thought it was a derivative of pot, but it was elephant tranquilizer. These little purple microdots. Then I started hanging out in the city and started trying everything—hash and whatever came down the pipe.
I ran away at fifteen. That was this whole Mardi Gras thing. When I got caught, the way I got caught was that I jumped a turnstile like I always did with my friend who I picked up in Washington Square Park. I kept picking up guys in Washington Square Park and bringing them back to the hotel. I was so naïve and I fancied myself so streetwise. I had a lot of street experiences, but I was so ill-equipped for real life. I mean, it’s amazing worse things didn’t happen.
My friend and I were in the subway and jumped over the turnstile. There was an undercover cop who asked me for my ID. My friend took off because he was on parole and he wasn’t going back to jail. I can’t blame him. The cop demanded my ID. I had two IDs; one was stolen from my older sister, who was five years older than me, and the other was a driver’s license. I had found somebody passed out in their car one day by the library, and I couldn’t wake her. Her skin was kinda clammy to the touch. I couldn’t wake her, and I kept trying, “Miss, miss, miss,” but I couldn’t wake her, so I went in her wallet, took her two dollars and her ID, and I skipped.
So, I had a stolen driver’s license, and I knew if I handed him my sister’s ID, he would want my last name. I would get caught and have to go home, but I was more afraid of stealing the driver’s license off a possibly dead person. I thought for a minute, and I gave him my sister’s ID. Then I realized, “I’m going to have to go back home.” That, to me, was just… so I jumped in front of the subway train to kill myself.
The train was coming at me and there was all this stuff making me cough. I thought it was exhaust, but somebody said there’s no exhaust with the train because trains are electrical. It was dirt and grit swirling around, and I was coughing and coughing. I suddenly got scared. I had such bad luck, I thought, with killing myself. I thought, “What if I don’t die? What if I’m maimed? What if my leg gets amputated? I’m going to go back to my parents’ house forever. I’ll be forever in their house.” I panicked, so I started to run with the train coming. There was a place inside that you could—
Des: One of those little alcoves.
Dorri: Yeah, I went in there. I held my breath and the train came right next to me. Then the train pulled to a stop, so I ran and ran. There were ladders down there, I guess for the workers, and I climbed up a ladder. I ran and I ran. The cop caught me after I came up. There were these three drunk guys and I found out later that the cop had offered them a dollar for where I went. It’s like, my life for a dollar.
I had run into this building. It was some kind of factory building; I saw these foreign women at sewing machines. I ran and ran. I was on the sixth floor, it was the top of the building. There was nowhere else to go. I was so tired, I collapsed. I was catching my breath. All of a sudden, I hear footsteps, and I was like, “Oh my god.”
He catches up to me, the cop. He was really nice. He was like, “What are you doing? You’re so young. You’re so pretty. What are you doing?”
I said, “I can’t go home. Please don’t tell. Please let me go. I’ll give you money and I’ll give you the drugs. I’ll do anything. Please don’t tell.”
He said, “I can’t. They stopped the whole subway line from running because of you. I have to turn you in, I have to.” He did tell me, “They’re going to search you, so if you have drugs, get rid of them.”
When I went in the bathroom, I had this brand new hash pipe and pot pipe. It was really cool. I loved this thing and it cost a lot of money. It was a lot of money to me. I threw that out, but there was no way I was going to throw out my drugs, so I rolled them into toilet paper. I had a bunch of hits of acid and PCP. I put it in my underwear and I thought, “Nobody’s going to search me. I’m not letting them,” or, “Nobody would even try to search my underwear.” I couldn’t go home without drugs. How was I going to survive?
Oh! I got this a little out of sequence. The reason I had taken off running with my friend was because, when we came back from hanging out in Washington Square Park, we got to the hotel and the maid there said, “You have to get out of here. Your parents are here.” It turns out my parents had found out where I was from a telephone number that had dropped out of my pocket when I ran away.
Anyway, they took me to the police station and contacted my parents. I was given back to my parents. They were so furious. It wasn’t like on TV, “Oh, thank god you’re safe, honey.” They were understandably [angry]. They both looked like they’d aged ten years.
At sixteen, I left and went to college. They bribed me, which was smart. They said, “If you finish school, we’ll send you to Europe for the summer. Whatever it costs.” So, I finish school and go to college. It was really fun to go to Europe. It was fun. That summer was the trip, and then I went to Boston University.
Soon after, I met a guy and I lived with him. He and I were very happy. He was a twenty-one year old guy, who was lovely. He was a great guy, and my parents were glad somebody was keeping an eye on me, so I had their blessing. Which I didn’t even feel I needed, but he said, “You have to ask your parents. I could be arrested! You’re a minor.”
I was like, “Oh, c’mon! Don’t worry about it!”
He’s like, “No! I need your parents’ permission.”
I think they were relieved, because he obviously cared about me. We were pretty happy together. I was younger, though. I had a lot of questions, still, about life, and he was young, too.
We went to this Rainbow festival and, to make a long story short, we hitchhiked and got in a car accident. It was my idea to hitchhike. We had flown into Flagstaff, and we were going to this camp, which still exists. They rent land and it’s like a hippie thing. When we got there, there was no public transportation to the campground. We tried to get a man with a van. We tried to take a train or a bus, but we couldn’t get anything. I said, “Well, let’s hitchhike.”
This really nice guy picked us up. What we didn’t know is he’d been up all night. He volunteered for the fire department. They’d been fighting fires. He was from an Indian reservation. He had a pickup truck and they kept picking kids up along the way. Us, these other kids—we were all going to the festival and they were going out of their way to take us to the festival. But the kid who was driving was nineteen and he was drinking beers to stay awake.
Dorri: Yeah. He fell asleep driving, and it was an open pickup. I was with my friend with some other people in the back. The driver fell asleep, hit an embankment, tumbled over, and skidded for many feet. I was completely unconscious. I basically fell on my face. My teeth were all screwed up. I was unconscious for a few days and they didn’t know if I was going to be brain dead. They didn’t know if I was going to live. Three people died.
That was trauma number three: the rape, the abortion, the car accident. Most people who survive a car accident that three people died in, where they were very close to losing their life, might not react the way I did, but I had tremendous survivor’s guilt because I wanted to die. I had wanted to die. The way I drugged was like… I didn’t really believe in God, but I would beg, “Please let me die. Please let me die. Please let me die.” I would get so fucked up, hoping it would just kill me.
One of the girls that had been traveling with us, she was the same age as me. She was seventeen and she was so innocent. Different, like I felt so world weary and I wanted to die. I felt like if there was a God, could he have aimed and missed? Could he have gotten the channel screwed up and hit her instead of me?
I started shooting drugs soon after that. I did that for a year and a half.
In between that, I had my most serious suicide attempt ever. I heard that you could die if you took pills and alcohol. I collected a bunch of [pills] and I drank vodka. I didn’t leave a note, because I wanted it to look like an accident. My mother had thought that my uncle, who had shot himself, was very selfish because he had hurt so many people by doing that. He hurt his parents by shooting himself. He hurt her.
I didn’t want people to say, “Oh, she’s so selfish,” so I didn’t leave a note, hoping it would just look like an accident.
I was subletting for my sister at the time. I didn’t think it through, like, she’s going to find me. Just like she was watching me when I ran away. It didn’t occur to me that she was watching me and was going to feel responsible, or going to get yelled at. I just was so self-involved. Partly because of all the drugs, partly because I was freaked out.
She’d gotten up, gone to work, and I was laying in position. She came home from work and I was still in that position. I think that after a day and a half or something, a full twenty-four hours, she called my parents and they took me to the hospital. She was worried, she didn’t know what was wrong, and she didn’t want me to die on her watch. I mean, she didn’t want me to die anyway, but she definitely didn’t want it to be on her watch. Again, history repeating itself. They got my stomach pumped in the hospital and I was okay. I don’t think we ever talked about it again. My parents had put me in therapy, but it didn’t work.
That was the really serious attempt. Then I was pissed, because I thought, “Why don’t I just fucking die? Why is this so hard?” I just tried to get blotto from then on, just drinking and drugging.
I heard that your arm goes numb when you’re having a heart attack, so I would do as much coke and alcohol as I could possibly do. At night, my heart would be racing and I would sometimes feel like my arm was numb. I would think, “Oh, thank goodness. I’m going to die already.” I wanted out. I just wanted fucking out. For so long, I just didn’t want to be here. I thought, if anybody had asked me, “Do you want to live? You want to be born?” I’d be like, “No fucking way! No!” It’s just so hard and everything felt so fucking overwhelming. I didn’t want to be here.
Then I bottomed out on drugs and alcohol. I had tried to quit now and then, but it was like an on-going suicide attempt. I was trying to O.D. and I didn’t O.D.
I was thinking about getting a gun. I started asking around, “Does anybody know where you get a gun?”
They’d ask, “What do you need a gun for?”
I’d say, “Protection.”
My roommate loved me. He was my best friend, I loved him. He was like a brother to me. We really got along great. He was a wonderful guy. He knew about depression. That was kind of our connection. When I first met him, I saw this haunted look in his eyes that looked like the look I saw when I looked in the mirror. Just this haunted, pained, depressed person. We really connected. He was smart, fun. He was a very mild-mannered person, but one night, he shook me. He was crying. “I’m not going to watch you kill yourself. If you don’t stop, I’m leaving. If you don’t stop drinking, I am leaving!”
The thought of life without him… I’d already lost my other best friend. She said to lose her number. I had done stuff in blackouts, and she didn’t really understand blackouts. She thought I was lying.
I would say, “What did I do? What did I say? I don’t know. I’m sorry. I don’t know.”
She didn’t believe me. She thought I was just not copping to what I’d done. She said, “Lose my number.”
I had a cousin who had said, “Listen, you seem to do alright with drugs and alcohol and handle it, but I can’t.” She had gone to a rehab. She said to tell the family it was Valium, but it was really harder drugs, I think. Anyway, she said, “If you ever are in trouble, I’m the one to call.”
One night I was hallucinating—not on hallucinogenics, hallucinating by accident. There was this tarantula on the dresser. It was so scary. I knew there were no tarantulas in New York City, and I knew enough about hallucinating from acid that I knew it wasn’t real. I covered one eye, covered the other eye, and kept writhing. I saw bugs scampering across my bed. I was coming out of a blackout. I had ripped up my entire art portfolio. I had spent money, time, and care putting together an art portfolio because I wanted a job as an illustrator. I had written all these suicidal song lyrics. I’d written, “Dazed and Confused.” I wrote a Jimi Hendrix lyric, “There ain’t no life nowhere. I don’t live today,” like a crazy person.
Right around that time, I started having these breaks with reality, half in and out of blackouts. I had paranoia, like a typical drug addict. One time, I caught myself muttering out loud. I lived in the Village. There were the 60’s casualties everywhere, all the drug casualties, and they would mutter and talk to themselves. There I was, walking down Minetta Lane going, “That son of a bitch. That motherfucker. I’ll show him. That son of a bitch.” I realized, all of a sudden, I was doing it out loud. I was always mad at some guy. I was always falling in love and mad at some guy.
With all those things combined, I called my cousin. She got me to a rehab. Her brother, my other cousin, got me a bed in the rehab. It was in Florida. I don’t remember the plane. I don’t remember the drive to the airport. I remember her getting me. I remember throwing up when she said, “We had to get something to eat.” She buckled me in. I don’t know. I got in the car and the next thing I remember is being in Florida, coming out of the blackout. I’m in the rehab, my cousin had left, and I wanted to leave. I was still high.
I got sober in that rehab. It was Hazelden in Florida, and it changed my life. But it didn’t change my suicidal tendencies. I was obsessed with suicide. I didn’t do it. I mean, I found this community of people. I was twenty-six. I found a sponsor. She loved me. She was really kind to me. She taught me what it felt like to really be loved for who you were, quirks and all. She wasn’t really trying to change me. She shared with me what worked for her when she was in similar trouble. She was just really patient and loving, kind and funny. I just adored her. She’s still my sponsor today.
Des: Oh, wow!
Dorri: Yeah. I got sober, but I still felt suicidal for years and years. I was afraid I was going to do it, but I had gotten older, so I knew what it would do to my family and, mostly, I knew what it would do to her. So, I didn’t do it.
Finally, after really working hard from therapy and twelve step meetings, working really, really hard, my sponsor said, “I’ve never seen anybody work so hard in getting better and still suffer so much. I think that it’s a chemical imbalance, and you could be helped by antidepressants.”
I felt like, “But I don’t want a crutch. I don’t want to be an addict.”
She said, “It’s not like you lose your sobriety. You don’t get high on antidepressants. They fix bad brain chemistry wiring. There’s something that creates anxiety and depression with you that I think is biochemical.”
I went on antidepressants, and it really changed the obsession with suicide. I was always looking out, like if I was in a building waiting for an elevator, I looked out a window, and if it was a high building, I would want to jump out. If I saw a train, I wanted to jump on the tracks. I wanted to take pills. I thought about buying a gun. It was this constant obsession with suicide and being dead.
I thought of dead as peace. It was like going for a nap and never waking up. I didn’t think of it as a bad thing. I thought of it as a beautiful thing.
Nobody else understood that, and people would treat me like I had cooties. They’d say, “What is wrong with you? How could you want to kill yourself?”
I felt like, “What’s wrong with you? Why would you want to be here? What’s good about it? It’s a horrible place with terrible people!”
What I learned later—not in rehab, but in therapy—was that I had PTSD. I wasn’t altogether quite right to begin with, obviously, or I wouldn’t have wanted to kill myself at age five. There was something wrong, but the antidepressants made a big difference.
After a few years, I started to feel better. It’s so typical. You know, I’m not schizophrenic, I’m not bipolar. I got tested for bipolar, because I had highs, lows, and mood swings, but the only diagnosis I got was a mood disorder, which is very vague.
Des: Mood disorder, not otherwise specified?
Dorri: Yeah! That’s what it was. But I’ve heard people who were schizophrenic, they want to go off their meds and then the mental illness returns. I think that’s what happened to me, because I went off the medication. I just stopped. I didn’t want to be on it anymore. I think I tapered off with my therapist. Then the thoughts came back. I started obsessing about suicide. Obsessing! I realized what a stark difference it was. Night and day! I had had thoughts of suicide, but not like this. It was like constant obsession again.
All the time I wanted to get high. It wasn’t like I stopped getting high and got this, like, happy-go-lucky. Still to this day, I would like to drink. I would like to do drugs. But I’m not willing to pay the price anymore. I don’t believe it would make me happy. If it worked, I would never have stopped. I think it’ll make me psychotic again, like, hallucinating, crazy. But I would love the way it made me feel sometimes when I was a teenager, dancing and laughing. It felt good. That’s what I crave.
So, I don’t do it, but I have stayed on the antidepressants. I’m fine just staying on them, and I don’t care if I never go off them. It’s not like they deprive me of moods; I cry when something sad happens, I cry in a sad movie, I experience anxiety, but what I don’t have is a constant desire to kill myself.
Des: Would you say that suicide is no longer an option?
Dorri: Yes. I would say that for a lot of reasons. My two nieces love me and I’m very, very close with them. I won’t say too much about them, but two of my four nieces have had struggles, and I think I was the one who could really help them manage their emotions, find help, and get to a happier place. It would just destroy them.
My dog. I love my dog. Chances are, my dog is going to go before me now because he’s turning thirteen in October. But all these years, I look at him and I’m like, “How could I leave him?” Nobody could explain it to him. Nobody could take care of him the way I take care of him. I love him to pieces. Dogs can adapt, but I just couldn’t do that.
I think about my parents, and I think about my sponsor who stuck with me all those years. I think when somebody kills themselves, it’s a ripple effect. I’ve seen that, because I’ve known of other people who killed themselves. I wasn’t really close to anybody who did it. I know how it was in my family when my uncle shot himself.
If I ever got to a point where there was no joy and I was desperate, I could see doing it. I hate to admit this, but I still crave to be dead. I do. I think it would be peaceful and I wouldn’t have to think so much. I wouldn’t have decisions. I wouldn’t have the embarrassment, shame, remorse, hurt, pain, anger. I wouldn’t be so devastated by what’s happening in the world all the time. I mean, who the fuck ever thought somebody like Trump would be running for president? Ugh! All these shootings and innocent kids. Ugh! Just everything in the world. One in five women get assaulted—women and girls. They manipulate genitalia in African women. There’s polygamy. There’s just so many fucking horrible things. There’s starving children. There’s dictatorships. What is so great about being here, you know?
On the other hand, I do experience a lot of joy in my life. I do. I love my dog to pieces. I’ve had a wonderful relationship for the last nine years, but at the moment, he’s on a slip and I don’t know what’s going to be. We’ve been married, and I love him, and he loves me…
I have no idea what’s going to happen with my life. But one thing I know, I’m like Rosie the Riveter, man. I’m so strong, nothing can kill me except for death. Nothing.