Erin Carneyis a suicide attempt survivor.
"I Survived a Suicide Attempt."
Erin Carney is a student in counseling psychology. She was 27 when I interviewed her in Nashville, TN on December 10, 2016.
CONTENT WARNING: discussion of methods
My cousin died by suicide, and that was a turning point in my life.
My dad was in the military. We moved around a lot. My mom was from the Philippines, so we’ve got the whole weird dynamic going on there. I was kind of estranged from my family by the time my cousin died. In a nutshell, they wanted me to study something… they wanted me to be a doctor, of course. It’s like the least original story ever. They refused to pay for my college—which I didn’t know until a week before I was going to go—if I studied anything else but medicine. I’m already Type A at that time, and then in a very Type A parent thing, so we’re already very conflicting there.
But my cousin, a couple years before he had died, he lived in rural Florida. He lived in Eustis, near Orlando—worst place to be gay. He lived with my grandparents. He was raised by my grandparents. He had a disability. He was hearing impaired. He had a lot of things going against him. He had a very rough, rough upbringing.
That was 2009 that he died, and I was just finishing up my sophomore year. That was kind of the break of everything. You know, you can keep everything together for a while, with all the stuff going on with my parents and hating my fucking undergrad university and everybody there and not fitting in—that kind of thing. But when that happened, it takes all the blinders off. I was already probably pretty depressed leading up to that, but when that happened, things just totally shifted.
I just changed my attitude towards life, stopped being Type A, stopped being an asshole, or what I thought was probably an asshole, that kind of thing. That’s when I started reading a lot of mental health stuff and I started working at a crisis line. But then, things got slowly worse and worse. I lost a lot of friends after my cousin died because nobody likes to hang out with a grieving 19-year-old. You’re kind of weird when that happens.
I was very isolated. I switched from the dorms to my own private apartment and would live, go every day, without really talking to anybody, which was probably the most excruciating two years of my life, to really do that. The depression got much, much worse.
Eight months after he died, I got my tattoo because it has such affected me in such a big way that I felt people would forget about him. I was never a tattoo person before, if there is such a thing, but I’d never had any sort of motivation to do that. I used to write with permanent marker right on the spot. I don’t know why, but I would do that every day, because I’d sort of punish myself if I didn’t think about him that day. And I felt a lot of responsibility for his death, as it was, already. So I would do that, and then, I just decided one day, probably in October or November or something like that, to permanently put it on there.
That happened and almost a year after that was probably the most severe suicidal episode I had. As I got more and more isolated and totally alone with no interpersonal supports, hating what I did every day in school… I had a story very similar to what one of your earliest people talked about, which is what resonated with me, because it’s just so weird that we’re so similar with what happens when you’re in that moment.
I lived on the sixth floor of an apartment building. By that time, my mind was totally kind of splitting. I constantly break it down to make sure it wasn’t a psychotic break using my little DSM and stuff like that. I was like, “No,” because I could reality test. I was still going to class and passing exams and stuff like that.
I would go home and I would sit in front of my books and just cry. But my mind would also be obsessing about this method that it selected. Sometimes, when I talk to people who haven’t experienced any sort of suicidal feelings or anything like that, I talk about it like it’s not a choice. To me, suicide is not a choice. I think it’s just an extreme sort of mode that you go in that your mind clicks into when things are so painful—that whole mental pain thing.
I explain it like a pie. When I’m whole, the pie is like—I don’t know—I am 100% that pie. I can control my thoughts and things like that. But when those suicidal feelings were happening, it was the most out of control I’ve ever felt. As things got worse and worse, I could hear less of my own voice and know less of who I was. It was more this automatic voicing, as you’re walking down the street, like, “You should just jump in front of the car. You should just do this and that, this and that.”
So that day, the worst day of my life that ever happened, I was just—I had been obsessing about jumping out of my apartment balcony for probably weeks or months at a time. It would start as the slow little pie, where I’d say that. Then I’d be like, “No, why would you think that kind of thing?” Then, it’d grown to where it was almost on a second-by-second basis. It was a constant sort of battle back and forth in my head.
I wasn’t sleeping, either. I would maybe sleep at half-hour intervals and then wake up. Really, the worst feeling is to wake up in the middle of the night and you’re totally alone and you’re totally horrified at the thought of, “Oh my god, I’m awake again. I’m just so tired.” Or you wake up at the start of the day and it’s just, “I cannot endure another minute of not talking to anybody, of trying to talk to people, trying to connect, and do these different things.”
That day, I didn’t go to class or something like that. I may have actually gone to the crisis line that day, which is probably really fucked up. I remember reading the resources book for suicidal people. I think, the week before, I’d had a suicidal person call, and I’d helped them with that. But I remember reading through the resources and was like, “Well, maybe I should check this out,” or something like that. Some little voice in me said something was not right; but still, I had no idea on what level it was.
When I got home after that, I sat on my little futon and just stared at the balcony and sliding door to it. Before then, I’d already been sort of practicing and rehearsing, or that part of my mind would say, “Just take a couple of steps forward and see what it’s like,” that kind of thing. By the time that day had happened, I was actually sitting on the edge of the balcony. There was this cement barrier to it… That was as far as I got with that.
But I would picture it. Part of my brain would picture it so much and so graphically. If there was somebody walking below, I’d obsess and almost get pleasure out of picturing the pain that they would experience and stuff like that, or what it would be like for them… It’s quite something, I guess.
I was sitting there and I still didn’t think something was wrong, but I also did think that… I don’t know. There was that dominant voice that was saying, “Just do it. Just go, just do it.” My mind was so single-track and so on-focus with it. Then, there’s the small, tiny, tiny, little voice in me saying, “Maybe you shouldn’t,” or, “Don’t,” but it was so weak and powerless.
After enough of sitting there and just trying to do it, I hopped off. I actually lived right next to the hospitals—the university hospitals—and so I walked to the psychiatric emergency room. But the entire time I walked there was probably the most difficult walk I’ve ever been on, because everything became a means. If I wasn’t going to gratify that voice in my head by doing the building, I was going to do anything. I was walking right alongside the road. I could step in front of a car. Lamp poles were like, “You could use that,” that kind of thing. It was just anything and everything. That was my first instance and that’s probably the most severe thing I’ve ever been through. That’s probably the closest I’ve ever been to probably…
No, I say that now, but then I think of last year. I had another episode where I was rehearsing again. I had pills. I would stick them in my mouth and I’d let them dissolve a little bit, and then I’d spit them out—that kind of thing. I mean, that’s probably more severe than the first one maybe, if you had to rank them, but I think the pain wasn’t as severe then. That was probably a year, or less than a year, after that first episode.
That happened because of… I’d never been physically abused before, but somebody I was dating at that time had choked me and then thrown me up against walls and things like that. Why you turn that into harming yourself about it? I don’t know. I’ve talked to therapists about that and it’s like my theme in my life.
But then, the most recent episode, I don’t know. It had been constant. Lots of efforts after that to rebuild your life and try to understand that you’re not going to be a damaged person, but you always just think you’re damaged and…
I worked really hard after I graduated. I sort of reconciled with my parents and told them, “I’m going to do what I want to do,” but that meant that I was cut off for a little bit, so I worked a lot of service jobs, made a lot of coffee. I’m the best tipper because I know what it’s like to live off of those tips. I lived in a house with four or five people and a housecat and bats and things like that.
Last year or maybe a year and a half ago, things totally switched. I was making so much progress in my life. I think, in my email, I told you that I was working in a suicide prevention lab. I was determined to, one, not have anybody experience what I experienced, but also not to lose anybody else, like we lost my cousin.
I was interviewing suicide attempt survivors through [a local university]. These were people who were sort of trying to figure out what their next steps were going to be. I loved every minute of doing that. And then, like I mentioned to you, I was in a couple of toxic relationships, both with my research mentor and then also just a relationship that I was in that was just probably, in retrospect, emotionally abusive, maybe.
I don’t know what the phrase is, but I’ll never say something severe [about my own experience]—like, I’ll never refer to it as trauma. I would never refer to anything as abuse or anything like that. It’s just another mistake I’ve made, which is something I’ve worked on a lot in therapy. So, even now, when I say it, or even to talk about things like this, to say that’s anything important or significant is just like, “Ugh.” Everybody else? Yes. Me? No.
I was in the second year of my master’s program. I was applying to Ph.D. programs. And I was in this shitty relationship. I was in this shitty mentorship relationship with a person who wanted me to be sort of unethical with this population that I loved and felt at home with, and a lot of things were just going to shit. In a span of 72 hours, I lost that relationship. I was sitting in the ER when my boyfriend called to break up with me, even though he knew where I was.
And then, that mentor, I had called him up. He called me all the time—that kind of stuff. I called him up for his clinical expertise [on something]. He’s flipping out on the phone and saying that I needed to [do this or that], and stuff like that, and then to check in with him the next day kind of thing.
I go in the next day, and he just goes off on me. He talks about boundaries and things like that—like, professional boundaries. Things were already really tense between us for other reasons. I don’t know. It all came to this ultimatum where he said that I either do things as he wants me to, according to that, or I go elsewhere, or something like that. I had that ultimatum sitting on me. I knew it was going to have to be that I would have to leave if he wasn’t willing to compromise with certain things.
A couple days later, I was actually driving… my ex-boyfriend’s mother, we had a better relationship than he and I did. She was worried about me. She knew how abrupt [the end was], and she knew the way things were going was fucked up. I was driving to see her. That’s when probably the most accelerated moment I ever had. It was just so quick where I’d already been sort of ideating for the few days before, but it had reached that intense level so quickly—the same thing that I felt when I was 19 that took years or months to develop. All of a sudden, it was just like my hands would start to sort of twitch again on the steering wheel. Tennessee and Kentucky have these big cliffs, so you could just… so easy, that kind of thing.
What was like an hour drive turned into five hours of me circling around Tennessee country roads. I would reach out to people and say, “I think something is wrong,” and try to contact them or call and things like that. Nobody would answer.
I found myself sitting on the train tracks waiting for something to happen. Long story short with that, I probably would have carried that out. I actually saw lights coming. I thought that it was a train, but as I soon as I saw the lights weren’t quite right… whatever company runs trains, they had one of their people patrolling it. I thought maybe it was maintenance, but I don’t think they do that at night, so they probably were already looking for me at that time.
I hopped off quickly after they came along. I decided to move my car and find somewhere down the tracks where they wouldn’t be patrolling and try again then. I was almost to another set of tracks when this jerk truck coming the opposite direction of me has their lights on. I’m like, “God, their lights are super bright,” and, all of a sudden, the blue lights go off. Then more blue lights behind me go off, and I didn’t know they were there. Then, on some side road, more blue lights went off.
I got stopped.
I still thought it was just like a normal stop, maybe, or they were looking for somebody. But I knew the procedure, because the guy I dated was a cop, and he would tell me about [his work]. I was specifically interested about what their mental health calls were like and what kind of training they get: none.
My ex had activated the… there’s like GPS in my car, somehow, or OnStar. He had used his contacts to track my car and locate me. I still think about this a lot and, to this day, blue lights still… I just sort of look the other way kind of thing, and cops, in general, too.
They had me roll down my window. I had to stick my hands outside the window. They had to open the door, and then they grab your wrists kind of thing. They’re immediately patting you down, asking me repeatedly if I have any weapons in the car or anything like that. I have tears down my face. So, total pat down kind of thing, and then they stick me on the hood of their car. Then, you just have these grown-ass men, who are comfortable with making sure I don’t have weapons on me, but I could tell that they were so uncomfortable with having to ask me what I was doing out there and trying to talk about it.
I remember the irony of them saying, “So, what do you do?”
I said, “I’m a student and I do research.”
They said, “What do you research?”
I was like, “Suicide.”
Then they’re like, “Then, you should know,” and things like that. They said, “This is a permanent solution to a temporary feeling,” and all this different stuff.
I’m like, “Yeah.”
I was pretty cocky there, too. That almost shocked me alive, because it’s like, “You know what? This is fucked up. This isn’t how things should be.” As hopeless as things were at that point, some part of me was like, “I can do better than this.” Part of that also stems from being hospitalized twice before that, “I can do better than the shit that they don’t give”—that kind of thing.
I came to kind of listening to them that way, and sort of broke out of that suicidal mode in my head. But they had to handcuff me. They took me to some local little hospital. They couldn’t verify my insurance, so instead of going to a place like Vanderbilt or something like that, I had to wait for a bed at the state hospital, which I had known about from some attempt survivors. They had talked to me about it, and just talked about it really as a One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest kind of thing—just warehousing you.
I sat for 30-something hours or something like that in the ER bay because it’s, like I said, a little community hospital, they don’t have any sort of psychiatric staff. I remember the ER doc evaluating me. I remember two things he said just pissed me off. I remember he said the phrase “off yourself,” and then he asked how I ended up there. I said I was trying to die, but then I had some friends or somebody stop me. He said, “Well, at least you have some friends,” or something like that. It was the worst shit ever.
I said in my mind, “I could probably do a better job than he could at evaluating people, too.” I don’t know. I just think I had the cockiest moments there. I think he laughed when I said that. But I knew how to play it cool and, long story short, they transferred me to MTMHI, which is the state hospital. It was 3am or something like that when they evaluated me with three questions, which was the worst questioning ever.
They said, “So, you’re in here because you tried to kill yourself, right?”
I said, “Right.”
They said, “You don’t want to do that anymore, right?”
I said, “Right.” This is this full-on psychiatrist.
Then, she said, “Why did you want to kill yourself?”
I said, “Well, it’s just been a really rough week. I’m likely to lose my job and my boyfriend broke up with me and just some other things have been happening.”
She said, “You’re young. You’re pretty. This too shall pass.” Verbatim, that’s what she said.
The third question was, “Do you want to come in here? Do you want us to take you?”
I said, “No. I’m fine,” and she was fine with that. My mother had driven down or flown down or something like that, and they discharged me to her care.
After that, I did lose my job. They say that I had decided beforehand, but there were a lot of people who I had told about what happened with being offered that ultimatum, and I had not made a decision. When I came back, well, I knew that all of the faculty knew—especially my mentors. But I knew that they knew what had happened. I guess, when they were looking for me, the cops had gone to my program, and people were in class. My mentors and my peers were in the lab and stuff, so everybody found out about it.
I was really into running. I was training for my first marathon at the time that all this stuff was falling apart. Three or four weeks after my run-in with the cops and the train, I still decided to run the marathon, with the help of some really good people who knew I was having a rough time, but didn’t know what was going on. So, I ran my first marathon, and I was probably the most depressed person there. I was maybe probably the only person who had just come out of that type of experience. I ran that, then I ran my longest trail race that I’ve ever run.
Clearly, it wasn’t about functionality. I was still functioning. I was still doing all of these things. I could still do all my schoolwork. I could do all of this different stuff. It wasn’t about willpower or anything that like that. It just was not what a lot of people would say it was.
I lost a lot of friends because, well, it’s just so stereotypical. They would say, “You did this for attention,” or, “Really, you were going to kill yourself over a guy?”
I was like, “No, there’s so much more to it than that,” and, “It wasn’t even about him. You knew that.”
It was more like it was the loss of this entire life that I had been working towards. Then, every time I tried to run after all those things happened, I would hear all of those comments, like, “You’re disturbed.” I would hear things that my ex said. I would hear things my mentor said. It was just the meanest self-talk that was going on in my head. So, there were all these secondary losses after that, and I just stopped being able to run and do a lot of the things I loved.
Also, I got this idea in my head that I shouldn’t be in this field, like, I’m not the right person to be in suicide prevention or something like that. I was thinking to myself, “You have no right to be dealing with these things,” and, “You’re not stable enough to be in this field. You have nothing to contribute.”
My little guiding light was my therapist, Carl. I had been through therapy twice with other people, and some of them were moderately helpful, but Carl was just a rock-star therapist. He was very humanist, very existential. There were some weird Buddhist things in there, too. He was just such a genuine person. Because I trusted him, and trusted his judgement, and I trusted his intellect, I believed the things that he said. He helped me change that self-talk or, at least, he planted the seeds for it. He was willing to say that these things were fucked up, and that it’s okay to be angry about these things. These were things that I would never tell myself, because my parents certainly wouldn’t say that, and the people around me wouldn’t say that, no. They were making sure that I knew how much responsibility I should take for things, and that’s just the way of things.
Even at Thanksgiving, my parents said, “You should have just sucked it up while you were working for that mentor.”
I was like, “What? Oh my God. I could not have done that.”
They just don’t get it, you know? But Carl has been the person who helped. I was seeing Carl at the time that I was getting depressed again, and when all those toxic situations were happening. We weren’t really connecting yet. I mean, he was good, but we weren’t really connecting. He was helpful, but maybe he is best as a high-crisis sort of counselor, or maybe I just didn’t need him or fully use him until that happened. But he was like an anchor. We would meet once or twice a week, and he would let me talk for as long as I wanted, which was exactly the type of counselor or psychologist that I want to be. I want to not be held down by stupid fears about ethics, or fears about liability, or all those things. If my client needs me for two hours, then fine, sometimes we talk for two and a half hours. That’s just the person I want to be.
I would say things like, “I just don’t think that I’m cut out for this world. I’m just too damn different.” My way of thinking is very idealistic. I’ve tried to fit in a hundred times.
Carl would say, “Yeah, you’re pretty left-field,” or that kind of thing, “But it’s not the wrong type of left-field.” As I say this, I get teary-eyed just thinking about it, but it is just such a gift to get someone like him. Ideally, that’s what you would have in any type of psychology field, is someone who has that genuine empathy, who can say that how you are is not wrong, but that you’re just constantly in the wrong fuckin’ crowds.
We’ve been emailing lately, and Carl was talking about food or something, and he saw something that reminded him of me. That’s probably also an ethics thing that probably a lot of therapists wouldn’t do, but he was like, “I just wanted to check in and say hello.” I was telling him about all the things I did this semester, and he said, “You know, your department really dropped the ball on what you had to offer.” He would say that a lot about a lot of different things, like about people I had dated or whatever.
Usually, that kind of bullshit encouragement from others doesn’t carry any weight for me. But from Carl, when I couldn’t fight for myself, he definitely would argue for why I should stay. He would use a lot of examples. He would say things like, “I’m not saying that you’re the second coming of Christ or anything like that, but think of all these people you admire, like Mother Teresa, or all those figures who changed history. They had to piss off some people. They had to be challenged by a lot of people. They struggled, just as you’ve struggled, because they’re different, and because they’re going against the grain.” He would say, “I don’t think you fit into this world, but rather, I think that you’re meant to create a new niche for yourself. I think that you’re meant to change things, and shape them however you should.”
That was something I’d never been told before. That was a way I had never been encouraged before. Because of him, I don’t think I ever would… I’ve always constantly been ideating and thinking about suicide, but I’ve never really felt the action behind it. I never feel the impulse. It’s just one of my stress responses. I just let it flow in and flow out, that kind of thing.
We used to talk about this metaphor, especially when I still had trouble sleeping. I still have trouble sleeping after these recent things. The most recent experience that happened was about these two dogs. This was something that we deeply connected over. It was that I had seen a picture on Facebook or something. It was a stupid little news story, but it was about a dog that had been hit by a car, and somebody had taken a picture of this, I don’t know why. The dog was dying by the side of the road, and this little companion dog had also found it and was sitting by it as it died. It protected it. People were trying to come out and take the dog away, and the other dog would growl at them, and just let it be in peace.
All these people were telling me things, as I was trying to recover, saying things like, “You need to do this,” and giving me so much advice, and telling me where I went wrong or whatever, and just giving me all this chitter chatter. That’s happened every single time that I’ve had a deep desire to kill myself. They share all these corrective things. It’s just like, “No, you’re just in so much pain.”
I’ve told Carl, “I wish that I just had a second dog. I just want someone to sit there.” That dog is not barking at the other dog. That dog just knows that the other dog is in pain. He’s just there to make sure that the other dog is not alone. That dog that’s dying can figure out for itself how to get better, or whether it can get better, or anything like that. You just need someone to genuinely be there, who is totally selfless. We talked about how that was what I needed.
After that, I’ve just tried to do the same thing for any other person I know who has been in a suicidal crisis state. I’ve just tried to do the same thing. When you’re in a dark hour, stop offering advice. Stop all the chattering. Just empathize with how much had to go wrong for you to be in that spot, and how many check points have failed. It’s not your failure, but it’s how many failures of others in society and all these things had to happen for you to get to that point. Just respect the pain that they’re in. In that hour, just be there—just be the second dog.
That’s how I’m surviving today. I’m just trying to find people and relationships that are genuine, people who are like that second dog. I think that’s really helped a lot, to stop finding these patterns of people who would do those things so that I reached a point of suicide. I guess that’s it. That’s probably the least organized way that I’ve talked about any of this stuff. I feel a little frazzled.
Des: Let’s talk more about your decision to stay in the field and do this work, despite some very clear discrimination.
Erin: Well, it’s kind of like a self-confidence thing. I mean, again, with Carl, I had to have one person telling me that the way I viewed things wasn’t wrong, especially when all that stuff happened with the department. I really second guessed myself. I was like, “Am I really that off-base, here?”
That’s when Carl started using his own experience, and his own mental health issues, and saying things like, “As I’ve been in this field, these are the people that I’ve encountered. There are people just like your mentors, to a different degree, or to an extreme degree, that I’ve encountered. They’re a bunch of assholes who aren’t in it for the right reasons. There are people who are in it for the right reasons, but they’re just totally clueless.” He said, “Your voice is no less necessary.”
It’s kind of like that overly used phrase, “Be the change you want to see in the world”—that kind of thing. I know what I needed. I could constantly throw out these different suicidal crises and communicate what I needed from other people. It was a matter of getting them to understand, and with talking about the language, it was a matter of getting them to speak the same sort of language and give me what I needed. Again, what I needed was just that second dog. So, I think I speak that language. As hard as it is, even now in the program that I’m in, people don’t speak that same language, and they’re not in it for the same kind of reasons as I am. I think that, if I could help out one more person, then that’s one less person who had to live that excruciating two years that I did, or one less Michael, who would have to go.
I don’t think there is anything glorious that’s going to come about because I’m part of the field. I think a lot more people have to jump on the boat to really start changing things, but I don’t understand why certain people get to run the show and set the tone for it. Like, what audacity! I’m just like, “Who instilled that kind of arrogance in you?” I just think a lot of people have different things to contribute. It’s not that I want to oust other people who have not experienced feeling suicidal, but I want to add some actual truth to it.
Also, part of it was that, from a research-in-the-field standpoint, the only reason that I even ended up in psychology was because I was trying to understand myself. After I graduated—well, I got my degree in neuroscience, so it’s like, “I should go work with animals, or experiment on some Labradors or something like that.” But I hated that! I hated working with mice; I liked people. As I was thinking about what I wanted to do, I would read about things.
I worked at a library as one of my jobs, and I would see these books—I saw Joiner’s book go through when it just came out or when it just came into our circulation at the library. I flipped through it. I was like, “Hmm, Why People Die by Suicide.” I would use a lot of these research tools to try and understand myself. I looked at a lot of the depression stuff, and the helplessness stuff, and I was trying to understand myself.
I taught myself how to read research articles. I was like, “Well, they’re still not getting everything! We still don’t understand everything! I don’t think this was very valid! I think there is a better way that we could be doing it.” So, that was part of it. I was like, “Well, fuck. I don’t know anything about psychology research, or research in general. I’m not very good with statistics. But, I think if I could learn these things, maybe I could change the research on it for people who research those things, like I did for myself. Or for people who use books to understand themselves, if not therapy.” I just wanted to try and add to that.
Again, it’s been harder and harder. Every time I get some sort of resistance from other people, like my department—because you just second-guess yourself every time—it’s counteracted by every suicidal person I’ve ever met, or someone who has been through a suicidal crisis, where they’re like, “Exactly! That’s how I felt!”
Then I say, “But why isn’t that in the literature? Why isn’t that part of our understanding of suicide? Why isn’t that part of how we try to stop suicide?”
It’s not a Jesus-complex, though. I don’t think I’m meant to save the world or anything like that. I just feel like we could still do better. And the more people with lived experience who are in the field—well, to me, that’s better, even from a scientific standpoint, too. It adds validity.
Des: I mean, is it better to talk to people who are alive and who have been there, or to sift through journals and letters, and second- and third-person accounts of someone who is dead, who can’t tell you why they’re dead? Or how they struggled? It seems a little ass-backwards to me, but it’s also still a young field, too.
Erin: Well, then again, Edwin Shneidman has been around for however long. I mean, suicide has been around for forever.
Des: It’s frustrating. But Jesus-complex or otherwise, it does give us a lot of openings to start the change, and kick out all the old white guys who are doing the same thing over and over, despite the suicide rate consistently rising.
Erin: Yeah, we’re like all the nerds in high school who are trying to take over from the jocks and the cheerleaders. I mean, the stereotypes—because I’ve met some very nice cheerleaders, and some very nice jocks—but metaphorically speaking.
Des: Yeah, it’s true. It’s worth it, I think. Having gone through what you have, how does it feel to be “out” professionally, and still doing this work?
Erin: What do you mean by “out professionally?”
Des: I mean, you’re telling me your story, and it’s going on a website.
Erin: I mean, you hear the similar thing of, “Why can physicians who have lived through cancer talk more easily about what they’ve been through?” I’ve thought about this a lot, and I’m sure there will be ignorant responses to it. Like Carl said, it doesn’t make it any less necessary.
I feel most whole in new interpersonal relationships, with friends or boyfriends or whatever, when I can just acknowledge that part of my experience. I mean, I’ve struggled with depression, and these suicidal moments, for years—ever since I was 19. That’s when I first became aware of it. And now I’m 27. I’ve been in it for eight years. That’s a big part of my life. It’s a big part of my motivation for pursuing the field. When people ask me, “Why psychology?” or, “Why suicide research?” I’m tired of the fact that I can’t mention all that’s happened. I’ll mention Michael, and I can openly talk about him, but I’m still very afraid.
I’m more afraid now because of the department stuff, because of losing my friends, because of catching judgment from a lot of people. But I was kind of low on self-esteem after that. I was pretty low-to-the-ground because of that. This is sort of a quicker second surge, like, “Fuck that!” No matter how good I am to people, or no matter how bad I am to people, some people will still respond in the least helpful ways. So, why not set that right for myself? Why not just be who I am, and be genuine with it, and just say, “This was a part of my experience. This is a part of who I am. This is a part of my motivation?”
I’m sure I will have professionals who question my judgement and things like that, and use it in all the ways they shouldn’t, but I think that the benefits could outweigh those costs. I could have potential future clients where, if they knew that that was my experience, they might be more willing to give me a try. I mean, you can tell—I don’t know if you can do this—but I can tell when someone has been through some sort of mental health crisis. And I can tell, usually, what the severity level was, simply because they’re nicer, and they’re more genuine, and they’re more thoughtful. You can’t fake those things. I don’t know how that happens. We’ve all been so humbled by our experience that it just cuts out all the bullshit. So, I just want to cut out that bullshit. If someone is hurting like I was, then, done. That’s one step, or one less barrier, if you come to me, or I’ll connect you with other people. I don’t know. At least it’s a baby step in the direction that I think this field should be moving in, and the kind of psychologist that I want to be, and the kind of world that I want to live in.
Des: Talk to me more about what benefits have come from your experiences.
Erin: Have you heard of depressive realism? I might be understanding this wrong, but they say that, someone who has been through depression, basically that we don’t kid ourselves. We don’t have any egotistical things clouding our judgment. We don’t interpret things in our favor. That’s not to say that it’s more realistic, because you don’t know what “truth” is; there’s no scale for that. But at least you’re closer to what’s real because you’re not kidding yourself. So, like I said before, I think with each humbling experience, I’m more genuine in my relationships with everybody. I have no time for people who I know wouldn’t be there for me when things get rough.
My relationships are a lot better. My relationships with my parents are a lot better; my dad totally switched from being the military guy, and using that approach, to more so being a father. He has been very humbled by the possibility of losing his daughter. Our relationship has changed a lot. He has really grown to be what he should have been in the beginning—that kind of thing. That’s one of the benefits that’s come from it.
Another benefit is the things that I know now about life and what matters. There were things that I took for granted before Michael died. There are things I know now that potentially could have saved Michael’s life. That’s what I use now in my interactions with other people, to hopefully prevent another death like his.
I don’t know, I haven’t really thought about the benefits. I’ve found a field that I will never get tired of, and that I will be in for the rest of my life. I could be some physician right now, with a lot of money, but hating myself and hating what I do.
Des: Talk to me more about the blue lights and the handcuffs. I don’t know if this is true, but it feels like the southern states are the ones where their laws require first responders to handcuff people who are having mental health crises and transport them.
Erin: What my ex told me when I asked, “Do you have to handcuff them?” was that basically it’s totally up to the judgment of the cop and what they feel safe doing.
I mean, how threatening was I? I don’t know. They probably just really love the rules. They were totally good cops, and they were following their protocol and stuff like that, but they were just so afraid of me. That was so humiliating, on so many different levels. It was a new low for me. I remember, when they picked me up to transfer me to MTMHI from the community hospital, they brought the handcuffs again, and they also brought these chain-link things for my legs, like cuffs. I was like, “What am I going to do? Run away?”
I remember the security guard who worked there. He said, “You’re not going to need those with her. You shouldn’t use those with her.”
I just remember looking at those, and I started to get teary-eyed. I was like, “Oh my god.” It really sends the wrong message. I felt like I had done something wrong. You feel like you’re really a menace to society, like you’re Hannibal Lecter or something like that! I mean, did I hurt somebody else? No! I only wanted to hurt myself! I thought, “You’re afraid of me because of that?”
It definitely is a big problem. Like I said, to this day, every time I see those blue lights at night, my mind just switches to that. I just think about that. Secretly, I give them the finger as I go by. That’s just what I have to do to say, “Fuck that experience, and fuck how awful that was.”
I think it’s definitely up to the cops. I don’t know how that protocol came about. I often wonder why they don’t have crisis people with them. I mean, I get it, there are people who could be violent, who could be a risk, but why don’t you have a mental health counselor with you? Someone who is a crisis expert and is ready to talk someone down. I know they do have that kind of thing, but they should have it with every sort of mental health call like that. I know that things can escalate, but at that point, you’re just sending in people who don’t have the right training, who are not experts, who are using their own sort of personal understanding of suicide, and their bias, to help you.
Des: I was lucky. I was taken to a hospital in Tennessee too, but they didn’t handcuff me.
Erin: Have you ever been transported by an ambulance? I mean, to me, that was already enough. Each time I had been taken to the hospital, they put me in an ambulance. Just having the blankets around me was enough, but they also had those seatbelts around me, and they were straps that they would use to have people chill out or whatever. To me, that was enough. You really do feel like such an animal when they’re strapping you down like that.
Des: What else about the hospital experience was good or bad?
Erin: It was all bad. It was the least helpful thing ever… My first experience was awful. Being a little green, naive person in the mental health world, you’re expecting this to be something. You’re expecting it to be the relief that you’ve been wanting for so long.
Ugh, some of these psychiatrists are such dicks. They don’t give you the time of day. The social workers were always the helpful ones, but it’s very limited help. I don’t know why there’s not more of a transitional care type of situation. I remember being angry, after being trapped in the ER from this last time, and then also being trapped at MTMHI, and then thinking to myself, “Why? It’s unethical!” I mean, we worry so much about ethics. It’s unethical to stop me from wanting to kill myself—which is my way of dealing with the pain, and such an excruciating time in my life—and then to toss me back into that, saying, “Oh, here are some coping skills.” There should be a much more rigorous re-integration kind of program, much more guidance, especially for the cost of those experiences. I mean, those bills are just secondary stressors, after the fact.
You would think we’d know better. I mean, so many suicide prevention researchers see that the window of time after you’re released from the hospital is when people attempt again. People struggle. I’m like, “Duh! You didn’t do enough to help! You didn’t set up enough for them to make changes in their life!” They don’t have enough people to help them make changes in their life to make their life worth living. That’s part of what I want to change, or at least help contribute to our understanding of.
I’m not a big fan of psychiatric hospitals or psychiatric units… I have yet to talk to somebody who had a good experience with [hospitalization].
Des: I’ve talked to some people who have.
Des: Yeah, but I think it has to do with the training and/or the lived experience of the provider. Training isn’t mandatory in most places. So, how do you know? You’re not going to know who you’re going to be faced with in a lot of places, and in most cases, it’s really shitty.
Erin: Speaking of lived experience, I remember when a friend said that the one thing [in the hospital] that she did find helpful was when the nurse, or the person in the ER, said that she had lived experience and was able to comfort her in that way, and even told her a little bit of what she could expect. She found that helpful, and calming. But, I bet you that that nurse can’t be as open as she wants to be.
Des: Either that, or it’s looked down on.
Erin: Yeah, so you’re losing out on a free resource there—that lived experience, and her expertise.
Des: It’s amazing that, even within the overall mental health and behavioral health field, that it’s just so looked down on for the providers to say anything about their lived experience. I mean, you know that people go into these helping fields because of that! It’s probably for a reason!
Erin: Actually, I wrote a paper on that for school recently. Just last week, during finals. It was some estimate that like 60-80%, at least, are willing to admit that they have had some kind of experience with mental health struggles. For one VA study, it was the majority of them. They made a good point when they said, “We just want to point out that if having lived experience with these things is a liability, or if I’m incompetent because of that, or if it’s a professional risk, then this hospital wouldn’t be working right now.” Like, “We’ve all had this experience, but we’re all pretty efficient! And we see our clients, and we provide resources and services, and we’re still able to do our jobs, despite what we’ve been through.” They made that good point that it’s not a disability. It’s a source of resilience and strength.
Des: Is suicide still an option for you?
Erin: Well, like I said before, I still think about it. It’s just part of my stress reaction, especially when I’m in school. But when I’m under less stress and I’m able to do more things that I love to do—not that I don’t love school, but papers can fucking suck it, but—I don’t know. I think about it, but I don’t think I’ll ever reach that point again, or have as severe of a low and actually use it as an option again. I’ll still be miserable at some points; I think that’s part of the human condition. But, no. Why should bullies win? Why should those dominant voices that are currently dominant still be the dominant ones? I’ll just use my little left-field voice. Like Carl said, it’s no less important. It might be wrong, but I would much rather reach out to some people, like that one friend, or reach out to some people who have reached out to me, and be one of those people, than not be here at all, I guess.