Jess Stohlmann-Raineyis a suicide attempt survivor.
"I Survived a Suicide Attempt."
Jess Stohlmann-Rainey is an activist and the director of program development at Rocky Mountain Crisis Partners in Denver, CO. She was 33 years old when I interviewed her in Philadelphia, PA, on November 6, 2018.
I think I have two stories. There’s a suicide story, and then there’s other stuff; they sometimes intersect, and so I’m going to start from the beginning of the other one.
My earliest memory in my life is hearing voices, and when I was little, I think they were kind of like imaginary friends. I didn’t really realize that it was weird or unusual, or that other people’s experience was different—and I’m not entirely sure that it was. Honestly, I think a lot of people talk about things like a voice in their head or hearing god or all kinds of things, and so it might be similar to that. But I was really comforted by them. It was like not being alone.
I don’t remember having a lot of distinct ones, just that I heard them when I was young. They got more distinct later, but I was also just a really weird kid—super emotional, very affected by things. I remember stepping on a bee in preschool, when I was being interviewed for preschool, actually, I think. They yelled at me for stepping on the bee and said, “We don’t kill god’s creatures.” I burst into tears, and I still sometimes feel shame about that, so that’s cool. Shame is awesome. I was just really much more emotional than other people, and really affected by other people’s perceptions and feelings, and then I was just weird.
I knew I experienced the world differently, but when I was young, I did not care. My parents were pretty great at making sure I didn’t care, which I’m really thankful for, because I think not all parents are like that. I wore costumes to school every day. For a large, large chunk of my life.
I was in Chicago growing up and then we moved to Colorado Springs. I was really excited about moving, and then the move was really hard on me, I think, because I wasn’t as good at making friends as I thought I would be. I didn’t have a weird girl to play horses with me anymore, so I feel like there was this sort of dark turn that happened in fifth grade for me.
I also think I was having puberty and stuff. I got boobs and nobody else did, and I felt weird, suddenly uncomfortable with who I was, and I had never felt that way before. Long before that point, too, I had kind of figured out, “Oh, we don’t talk about our imaginary friends anymore.” Then I started realizing, “Oh, it’s not that we don’t talk about them; it’s that other people don’t have this experience.”
I just started feeling bad all the time. I have journals from middle school where I would write about wanting to kill myself, wanting to be swallowed up by black pits and things like that—really sort of dark things for a twelve-year-old to be writing about. I was thinking about it all the time, and I think my parents knew that something was wrong, but I also think they were like, “I don’t know, she’s our oldest kid; maybe this is just puberty.”
I got really mean. During middle school was when I started having really distinct voices. I have four, and I have one that I just call “the bad one.” She tells me to kill other people and myself. It started out smaller than that. It would be like, “You should hit them,” or, “You should do this malicious thing,” or, “You should cut yourself,” or, “You should get really drunk.” Those kinds of things. Then it escalated into murder/kill stuff. I didn’t listen to the voices in that way. They were commands, but I didn’t ever feel like I had to listen. But I feel like it planted this idea that maybe, if things felt too shitty, I didn’t have to stick around.
I just sort of felt worse and worse, and I was cutting myself a lot. I would start experiencing these really extreme states where I felt out of my body and the world wasn’t—I was just not in touch with the same reality as other people. It would get really intense, and then I wouldn’t know how to bring myself back without doing something violent to get myself back in my body. That could be hitting my head into walls or cutting myself or burning. I burned myself with salt and ice a lot, which I learned how to do in my chemistry class in middle school—not that they were teaching to burn yourself, but I learned about salt and ice.
By the time I got to high school, everything was just out of control, and I struggled with friendships a lot. I feel like nobody was as intense as I was about being friends, or about not being friends which, sometimes, was the worst side, I think. I would constantly feel hurt by people.
It’s like I was this open wound with a lot of secrets. I learned to keep secrets about my mental health stuff when I was really young—probably six, when other people didn’t have imaginary friends and I knew my reactions to things were not right—so I learned to keep secrets way before then. It seemed like the right thing to do. My parents were fucking great. I have the best parents. Part of the reason I kept secrets was because I didn’t want to hurt them, I think, so I just let all this stuff pile up.
Everybody knew something was wrong. I was like this really unfortunate hurricane that everyone had to be around, and I was good at kind of sucking people into my bullshit, too. I would wreck people with relationships and friendships and stuff. I was partying all the time because it was a time when I felt normal with people—everyone was feeling extreme when they were partying, so it just felt like a space where I fit with people.
I started doing really risky things. I put myself in dangerous situations, and all of that kind of had the same effect as cutting did. When things were at their worst, I was doing things like—we had this road called Gold Camp Road, and it went up through the mountains in Colorado Springs—I would drive on it and shut my eyes and see if I would crash, and I never did, really. Sometimes I would go off the road and then get back on it. That’s really scary, dangerous stuff, and it didn’t feel scary at all to me. I think it was a way of getting myself ready in case I wanted to kill myself. I didn’t think of it that way at the time, but looking back, I feel like that’s what that was.
Eventually, I was just feeling awful and no one would ever understand me, and no one would want to be around me. I felt like I had some kind of terrible life sentence to this, whatever this was. I didn’t have any names for it. I hadn’t gone to therapy or anything, and I started watching all these movies that had suicide in them. I was seeking them out all the time, and there’s no shortage of that. I think that was also part of my way of getting ready for it. It’s like I needed to figure out how to do it.
I tried to kill myself with pills. I just took a bunch of things, mostly Benadryl. I think we had Google—we definitely had computers, and I did some internet searching—but there wasn’t a website where you could put in information about yourself and then find out how many pills you have to take to die in the way that there is now. I didn’t really know what I was doing. I was just trying to kill myself.
I ended up tripping really hard on Benadryl, which is pretty terrifying, actually. I saw bugs everywhere. That was worse than dying, it felt like, in that moment. I went downstairs and I told my mom I took too much Benadryl. She was like, “Well, were you trying to off yourself, or was it an accident?” She was really casual, and so I lied to her.
In that moment, I realized, “Oh, I really don’t want my parents to find me. I don’t want to do this here,” so I decided I was going to kill myself at school. I went to school and I used a different method. It was in the bathroom in the gym, and this girl pounded on the door saying she had to poop. She kind of saved my life, I guess, in a weird way. Don’t know who it was. She left because I was in there crying. I think I dropped a knife on the floor and she ran off, which I would have done as well if someone was crying and dropping knives while I was trying to poop.
I went and told my gym teacher that I needed help. He took me to the counselor. Well, the school resource officer came and put me in handcuffs and took me across the school campus to the counselor’s office, then took the handcuffs off. I’m not really sure why the handcuffs were necessary, but this was a few years after Columbine, so not the best time to be suicidal and escorted by police across the campus where people can see you. My mom came. My parents did everything that you’re supposed to do.
They put me in inpatient at the best hospital there, and the problem is that inpatient care is just garbage. It doesn’t matter how great the hospital is or how good their ratings are and how nice the pretty old building is. You’re still in inpatient treatment. I went in and I wanted something to change so much that I was almost excited to go into inpatient. I was at an age in Colorado where I was the medical age of consent, so I did voluntarily check myself in there. I remember signing paperwork and there’s this part about how you can check yourself in, but you don’t get to just leave. I was like, “This seems weird,” but I just wanted it to work, so I went.
My first night there, my roommate killed herself in the bathroom and I found her between bed checks. I was like, “Oh, this is not a place where you go to get better. This place is scary.” I decided then that I was going to just be the least crazy person in the room until I could get out, and I’m pretty good at faking it. I got out in six days because six days is what your health insurance will cover, so you’re always going to be in for at least six.
I started going to this therapist who I got a borderline personality disorder diagnosis from because I was a white, middle class girl who attempted suicide a couple times—pretty much that’s your diagnosis that you’re going to get. I didn’t tell them about my voices because well, first, I really legitimately didn’t think they were relevant to the situation, which was true. I think I also thought, “Hmm, that doesn’t seem like something that’s going to go well,” but I’m not sure why I knew that.
I lied to the therapist a lot. Eventually she was like, “You’re doing great, you don’t need therapy anymore,” and I was just so much more fucked up than I had been. I just turned into this shell. They also put me on a shitload of medications, and I went through pill after pill after pill. I ended up actually disclosing to psychiatrists about my voices, and when I did that is when I started being really, really heavily medicated. I was on one med that made me twitch all over. That’s the one that my mom says was the scariest. I don’t remember that at all.
From like 16 to 18, I don’t remember hardly anything. I think my teachers were afraid of me. A lot of them, I’m pretty sure, just gave me like good enough grades because they were like, “Get her out of here.” And I didn’t really have consistent friends. I was on this slew of medications that all had different effects. I remember falling asleep, hard, all the time—just suddenly passing out. I had one that made me produce breast milk, which to me, was the scariest one. There are all these moments in mental health treatment for me that were deeply humiliating, to the point where the only thing you could do was laugh.
I remember I couldn’t formulate words because I was so screwed up on these meds. I called my mom into my room, and I was trying to communicate. I was like, “Mom, I have breast milk. I don’t know what’s happening.” I couldn’t figure out how to tell her. I squeezed my boob. It sprayed all over her. She doesn’t remember this because she was so scared of the other one. I don’t remember the twitchy one because I was so freaked out about the breast milk one. That’s pretty bad. That’s all before I was 18.
Lots of medications, all kinds of weird side effects, and I didn’t have my current diagnosis yet. I went through a series of diagnoses: bipolar, borderline, depression, anxiety—everything you can think of. I didn’t have my most stigmatized diagnosis yet because I wasn’t 18, I think. But as soon as I turned 18, I got a schizophrenia diagnosis right away. I know somebody was waiting for that.
But all these diagnoses, all these medications, there was nothing that helped me feel better. It seemed like, in this whole medication process, nobody gave a shit about me feeling better, either. They were just like, “Okay, here’s a symptom. We’re going to try and medicate that away,” instead of thinking about, “What are the things that you’re okay with managing? What are the things that you’re not?”
I was just this empty shell of a human on a lot of meds, and still with voices. None of the medications even touched the voices. No real, solid friendships. I had this counselor who was like, “Given your diagnosis, you need to start considering that you’re probably never going to live on your own, you’re not going to go to college, you’re not going to have a job. People like you, that’s not what happens.”
I was like, “Fuck you,” but also really freaked out.
I decided to only apply to colleges in-state where I could be close enough to my family in case this asshole was right. I went to college and things were kind of okay. I decided I was going to go off my meds. I was like, “I’m going to stop going by Jessica. I’m going to go by Jess, because I’m going to be different. I’m going to go off my medications, and nobody’s going to know all this shit. Nobody’s going to think I’m a Columbine shooter girl. Nobody’s going to remember me being handcuffed.” Little did I know, I would end up in handcuffs more than once, but I was like, “I’m not going to be crazy. I’m not going to be the crazy girl.” I was wrong. I was definitely still the crazy girl, but that’s okay. I’m into it now. But at the time, I was like, “I’m not going to be crazy. I’m going to be fine. I’m going to prove this piece of shit wrong who told me that I can’t have a life,” and so I went to school.
I had been sober for my senior year of high school. It was kind of good for me, I think, in that moment, because I had no coping skills and was on a shitload of meds. It’s not a good time to drink. I started going off medications, and I got connected with this group of old ladies who were antipsychiatry and I loved them. They were wonderful, but they were part of this movement of people who were like, “Go off your meds and just drink a glass of wine every day.”
I was like, “Cool.” so I did that. I went off meds cold turkey. Not advisable. I was full-on, super out of touch with reality. I never slept.
I did really well in school because, I think, some of the things that come along with my mental health challenges are also things that make me really successful at a lot of stuff. I’m really good at seeing connections between things that other people can’t. Sometimes they’re real logical connections, sometimes not. That really helped me in school—connect things. I don’t sleep very much, and at the time, I didn’t really sleep much at all—a couple hours a night, maybe, and that also helped with school.
I had these people who helped me. I did a DBT class, and there were things that were really helpful about DBT for me. I think it got me through some times when I was suicidal again. That was helpful, but there are things about DBT that I didn’t like. DBT is really reliant on a lot of submission and this “whatever’s happening is fine, you just have to deal with it” kind of stuff, and I don’t know that that’s always the case.
I also got introduced to activism at the same time. And activism, I feel, is the real thing that changed my life—like taking women’s studies courses and being involved in that space and feeling like I had a community and the things I did mattered. I wasn’t wrong about all of this pain and injustice in the world that I had been experiencing my whole life, or knowing was there my whole life. I wasn’t wrong about that. That stuff was real and deserved attention.
That was really, really powerful for me. Then I took a WRAP class with those old ladies—[WRAP is] Wellness Recovery Action Plan. That was helpful for me in some ways, but during that whole time, I was in a place where I would waver between mostly having my shit together and then never sleeping and thinking I had powers.
I’m like A Beautiful Mind, writing papers that I don’t need to write, that no one assigned me. In grad school, I was writing all of these long, thirty page, forty page papers and giving them to my teachers. They were like, “We didn’t ask for this.” I was like, “Okay, can you grade it, though?” I was the weirdest bad student. I sometimes did the stuff I was supposed to. I did pretty well in school because I was smart, but just really intense. I was writing all these crazy papers and literally had Post-It notes with string between them, connecting ideas and stuff. That’s still how I write things, but it looks very crazy to people when they see that, when they recognize that as A Beautiful Mind.
At the same time, I thought I had powers, like I was a witch and I could control things, and it was fucking great. It wasn’t scary. I think people talk about those experiences, those extreme states, as being horrifying or something. I think, sometimes, from the outside, they are, but for me, I was like, “Everything’s awesome. I’m writing all these papers. I’m really smart. I have powers also, which is dope.”
I went straight from undergrad to grad school. I did undergrad in three years and grad school in two, back to back. I was really involved in activism and I went to this protest in grad school. It was an immigration protest. There were ICE raids all the time, so we made this human barrier so they couldn’t go and take people out of their homes. They basically walk toward you and try and intimidate people, so other people were kind of backing up and I was having powers and stuff. I just looked at this dude and set a curse on him and spit on his face, which gets you arrested really quickly.
I had a couple of stints where I did a three-day hold or something for being too crazy during college. I had a few of those. But not because a major thing happened. And all of those ended up being in a hospital—not a mental health hospital, just a hospital-hospital.
So I spit on this dude’s face, get thrown in the back of a cop car in handcuffs. I’m screaming about how I’m going to turn the handcuffs to sand. I end up hospitalized and not in jail, which is fortunate, because that ended up theoretically not being in my record—although any time I have police run my ID, I’m pretty sure they can see that in my history based on their responses. But it’s not technically on my record, my criminal record; nobody wants assaulting a police officer on their record. I went into this hospital.
Now, working in the mental health system in Colorado, I’m like, “That’s the last place anyone wants to be in.” That was my experience.
So I went in. I was in handcuffs in the cop car. I was put directly into a seclusion room, then pretty quickly put in restraints because an employee there came in during the night. I was put on a shitload of meds, as always, because they tend to drug people up quite a lot. You can’t do involuntary meds, but you can do emergency meds. That’s how that works, so it was emergency medication that I got. I was really out of it.
I was in a hospital gown type thing because, when you’re spitting on cops, they don’t let you wear your regular clothes to the hospital. This guy came in and he put his hand up under my hospital gown, and I bit him on the face and drew blood. Then they put me in physical restraints and he was the person who would come in to let me out to go to the bathroom. I would fight him every time because he tried to get rape-y with me, so then I also got put in chemical restraints, which is basically medication so you’re just zonked and can’t do anything. Then he would come in and assault me all the time.
I was there six days in physical and chemical restraints with a catheter because otherwise, you’d just be peeing on yourself. I don’t really remember how I got food and water. I’m sure there was something with that. All I really remember is these endless hours of being in this fog and restraints.
After six days, I got out. I didn’t tell anyone about it. I was really, really embarrassed and humiliated, and had pretty bad feelings about the mental health system. And that person—I didn’t really feel like I could make a report about that or anything. I didn’t know the guy’s name. I was on a shitload of drugs. I couldn’t pick him out of a lineup, probably, now if I wanted to. That was just a really awful sort of peak moment. When I think of turning points in a mental health story, I think, for a lot of people, their suicide attempt is this turning point; for me, it was this.
That’s when I was like, “Fuck traditional mental healthcare.” They have done nothing for me. All they’ve done is get me strung out on medication and then exploited me. Nobody listens to me. Nobody cares what my experience is. They tell me the things that I care about and want to have in my life are bad or wrong. I want to have my voices. I like them. They’re really important to me. They help me make decisions. I understand them. We have a good relationship with each other. They were always trying to take away the things that I wanted, and they didn’t care about the things that I wanted to be different. It was just always like something was wrong with me. It felt very punitive and awful, so this was that point where I was like, “I’m done with this shit.”
Originally, I wanted to go and do something mental health-related for school, but I was told by people, “Oh, if you’re crazy, you can’t help crazy people,” which is very untrue. So I was like, “Okay, I’m going to get an English and a women’s studies degree,” and then I went to school for education, which is great. I actually use my degree all the time, but I immediately went into nonprofit work, and none of it was suicide “prevention.” I’m putting prevention in quotes because I don’t even know if I want to call it that, but none of it was suicide work or mental health work, per se. It was directly adjacent to that. I was like, “I’m going to do victim advocacy for sexual assault and domestic violence survivors.” Shockingly, tons of the people I work with are suicidal. Then, “I’m going to go and work and run the only LGBT youth center in southern Colorado that’s located in Colorado Springs,” which is a hellscape for queer people and, shockingly, a ton of people I work with here are suicidal.
I was like, “Yeah, I’ll just be doing directly next to suicide work for forever and ever,” and then I got a job in suicide prevention explicitly. I worked in primary prevention, which was cool to me because it had this social justice focus. I had only ever really benefited from peer support within the mental health system. I really liked the people who were in my DBT group and I liked, more than DBT, when we would go out for coffee afterwards and we were actually allowed to talk about things. Lived experience was really important to me as a part of that, and I worked for an organization where I was given a lot of support in thinking about how we change the world to decrease the amount of suicidal thoughts people have. I wasn’t doing screening intervention kind of stuff, and I wasn’t doing the traditional suicide prevention programs where it was like, “Here’s what to look for, and if you see this, call 911.” I had a lot of leeway, and that’s where I learned about peer support and the social justice movement connected to that. That really made sense to me; that’s kind of where I fit.
I started doing research with suicide attempt survivors—specifically around their experiences of getting to a place where they felt better, or in recovery, or however they define that. I developed this whole community of people who were like me. The thing I noticed through this whole process is that, while people benefit from certain things within traditional mental health, for the most part, people’s experiences with traditional mental health were really bad, particularly if they were subjected to some kind of coercion or forced treatment or involuntary medications—and most of the people who had experiences with suicide were. Or they never even made it to the mental health system, they just attempted suicide and nobody knew. So there’s people the system failed and then people the system missed. Then I was like, “Where are the people who benefit from the system?” I feel like I’m still not totally clear on where they are, or if they’re there. I feel like people benefit from little pieces of it, but the system itself is just sort of inherently fucked up, because it treats people like their experiences are not real or need to be fixed—like there’s something wrong with them instead of something wrong with the world that makes us feel silent and hopeless. The world wasn’t built for us, somehow, and we have to adapt to that, instead of adapting the world to that.
Now I do a lot of different things. I work for Colorado’s crisis line, and I do all of their training and program development for both the crisis side and the peer support side. The crisis side is a traditional crisis hotline with clinicians and triage specialists, so I train all of them. Then there’s also a peer support line, which is where I would say my heart is in the movement. I’m really involved in activism around that. The thing that I think is really great about that job is that even the crisis side is built around this idea that we’re trying to help people to get through things in their homes and within their communities. Our goal is to keep people out of hospitalization. It was built as an emergency department diversion program, so we have a really different perspective on crisis.
The things that are hard in my life are that I can’t go to a doctor without being afraid of forced treatment. It had been a decade since anything had happened, and I’d felt almost like I was super paranoid or crazy for worrying about going to doctors. Then I saw this movie that brought back all of the memories about the stuff that happened in when I was in seclusion and restraints. I decided to go to trauma therapy. I had benefited from EMDR at one point, so I scheduled an EMDR appointment.
I show up at this doctor’s office, and this was just this year, so I still can’t believe that, in 2018, this happened to me. But I show up at this doctor’s office and he’s new. He’s doing his practicum or whatever.
I fill out paperwork, and I have to disclose about my voices because that’s how I ended up in the situation I was in, and I was going there to process that trauma. You can’t lie about your trauma and get good treatment for trauma, so I wrote it all on the intake form and turned it in. I had built this whole safety plan around it. I had people at work who knew, my partner knew I was going, and I had all these plans for what we would do.
I watched the doctor, as he’s reading my intake, reach under the desk and push the button—the panic button. I don’t know why they even put it under the desk, because we all know it’s there. You might as well just leave it right on top, just put a big red button there, and then maybe anyone could push it when they panicked, instead of just the doctor.
I freaked out. I was like, “Did you just call the fucking cops?” I stood over him and pointed my finger at him and stuff, so I guess I was being intimidating or whatever, but he called the cops on me when I was there to talk about all my trauma from being picked up by the cops and put in seclusion and restraints. They came, put me in handcuffs, took me to the hospital. I know the director of the hospital, so he let me go.
It was another turning point, I feel like, for me. I’ve been doing good social justice work around suicide, but I think I had been doing it in this nice and much more passive way. I wasn’t disclosing a lot of things about my attempt, even, or anything else about me. I was being a “good” suicide attempt survivor. After being picked up and taken to the hospital again, when I was fine—I wasn’t even in a bad place, I just had memories that I wanted to deal with—to go through that again was just really, really life changing in a terrible way. I was like, “I am not going to be quiet anymore.” That was in May.
I’ve been fixated on this quote from Audre Lorde. She has this essay called “The Transformation of Silence into Language and Action.” She talks about having breast cancer, and she talks about how she’s going to die, if not sooner than later, and that her silence has not protected her. She says, “My silences had not protected me. Your silence will not protect you.” I’ve always loved that essay for a lot of reasons, but it just felt very connected to this experience.
I was like, “I can’t be quiet about this stuff anymore. I can’t be passive about it. I can’t politely wait for the system to change.” I think I’m in this place of being newly re-radicalized in my views about mental health and feeling more willing to take risks, because it’s not like the system isn’t taking risks with us, anyway. It’s not protecting me not to. I’m not safer being quiet, clearly, because that didn’t work.
So, I don’t know. To be continued. I don’t know how you end a story like that.
Des: That’s a good ending. That was great. Talk about your voices more, because you’ve told me many times that you like them, and you did mention it here, but what does that mean? I think I was with you one of the first times you disclosed about them publicly. You were freaked out. What’s that been like?
Jess: I like my voices. It took me a while to come to an understanding with them about when they’re allowed to be loud. Sometimes they’re like wild ass kids in the background. The less well I feel, the more cacophony there is involved with them.
I have four voices. One very much feels like it’s me. One is kind of like this annoying cheerleader. She’s my least favorite. If I was going to get rid of one, I would get rid of her. One is the bad voice, and it’s like, “Kill yourself,” “Kill other people,” “Everybody hates you,” “Kick that cat,” “Blow something up.” It’s bad. And then one is kind of this impulsive voice, and that’s also the fun one, but maybe not one you want to listen to.
For a long time, I don’t think I knew how to think about them, but when I met that group of old lady antipsychiatry people, they taught me about learning to hear what your voices mean and not what they say. I felt like I really got more connected to reality through them. I can be really, really in my own world really easily, and the voices help me stay connected to what’s happening around me, and I’m able to interpret and understand things. I think I would be lonely without them. The idea of not hearing them is scary to me, terrifying.
Just before all this stuff happened with being picked up by the police again, when I was at the Suicidology conference, I made a decision that I was going to talk about my voices in connection with a panel that we were doing about self-harm. I decided to do that because I used to self-harm to get the voices to stop when I was really overwhelmed sometimes. I thought that was an important part. I didn’t know how to talk about self-harm without that, and so I decided I was going to disclose. I was also going to disclose in another panel. I went in being like, “Okay, people are going to know.”
There are diagnoses that it’s okay to have, and then there are ones where it’s not okay to have them. You can be bipolar and you can have depression, and you can even have bipolar with manic psychosis, but I think there’s this idea that those are still things that are somehow connected with reality. Your manic psychosis goes away and then you’re just sad. But when you have a diagnosis like schizophrenia, when you have experiences where you live in a world that’s different than the one other people live in—although we can make a strong argument that everyone does, but that’s beside the point—your credibility as, first, a credible witness of your own experiences, but then also your credibility as someone who can do research and understand things and have valid opinions can be really shot. Particularly in mental health spaces. I think it’s actually easier to be credible in other places.
So I’m at this Suicidology conference with all of these fucking old white dudes who have been doing the same research forever and ever and ever. They might have mental health shit going on, but none of them ever fucking disclose it or ever will. There are providers and then there are the suicidal people, and they have this paternalistic relationship where they’re rescuing you and whatever. It’s hard enough to just be a suicide attempt survivor and be respected in that space, and then I’m like, “Okay, I also don’t live in the same world as you. I hear voices. I have this diagnosis.” I was like, “No one’s ever going to trust me again,” but I also felt very compelled to talk about it because I don’t think it’s fair. I don’t think it’s right to have to be sane-passing to be able to get by in the world. I’m really good at sane-passing, which sometimes I’m thankful for and sometimes I’m not. I’m really afraid of being held up as this weird poster child for schizophrenia, like, “This is what schizophrenia is like.” So all of that was going on, and I was really freaked out by that.
The thing that freaked me out the most is that a few people mentioned something to me about it after I disclosed. There was a guy who tried to do a suicide assessment on me afterwards, and I was like, “Stop assessing me. This is weird. I’m good. You don’t know what you’re doing. All those suicide assessments don’t work. Go ask anyone here. They all know. They do research on it.” So that happened, but a lot of people didn’t say anything to me about it. I was like, “I know this is a big deal, and no one’s saying anything,” so then I was like, “Oh, my credibility is shot. People don’t trust me.” That was part of what freaked me out about it. I don’t know that that’s true.
I am still worried about the poster child thing. At that conference, it didn’t occur me to be like, “Oh, also, I don’t take medication and I don’t go to mental health treatment.” I’m very much not a “good” schizophrenic, in the way the mental health system thinks of that. I’m not medicated and going to my appointments and keeping a food journal and going to yoga or whatever. I’m full-on crazy all the time. This is how I live and it’s fine. I’m fine.
But that was what I was most scared of. I’m still scared of it. I know people know now. People know a little bit, but I really don’t think people quite get it. I feel like I’m an interloper between this very, very radical peer support space and then stodgy suicidology researchers. In the peer space, they’re kind of like, “Whoa, you seem like you have your shit together.” I’m too sane in that space, and I’m not sane enough, but almost, in the other space, so I’m doing this weird navigation thing right now, but also trying to be really honest about that, I guess. It’s weird. It’s scary. People don’t trust you. And because they don’t trust you and they’re afraid of you, you can end up locked up again. It’s this idea of going in front of a crowd. That was part of it. This is a crowd of people who can literally write a mental health hold for me, and maybe they will. Like, maybe if they know, they’ll come after me. I still feel like that.
Des: Will you always feel that way?
Jess: Probably. Hopefully not. I want to be able to trust some of it. I mean, there are people I really like who are clinicians, who I really want to trust, but I don’t. Because when I push them on things, like the fact that there’s no evidence that hospitalization works for suicidal people, and I ask why we’re doing that, they won’t answer. They won’t give me a direct answer. So if they’re not going to do that, how do I know they’re not going to think that’s the best place for me? Or say, “The stuff you’re saying doesn’t count anymore because you’re too crazy. We don’t have to listen to you.” Right now, I think they’re listening. We’ll see after this year.
Des: Talk more about your ideas about “good” attempt survivors versus “bad” attempt survivors. I know you like to talk about that.
Jess: I do.
If you’re a good attempt survivor, then you’ll wake up from your suicide attempt and you’re like, “Oh my god, I didn’t mean to. All of the things that I thought were unsolvable are totally solvable. Everything’s going to be fine.” You’re never suicidal again, for sure, and you’re willing to go bleed on a stage for people to promote suicide prevention—none of us are clear on how that works as a strategy, but we do it anyway. You say, “I’m going to get better,” and you do. You go to your appointments and you take your meds and do the whole mental health thing, and you never fucking struggle again. That’s a good suicide attempt survivor. You have your shit together. Yoga is usually involved, I feel like. Meditation, mindfulness, lots of appointments, lots of medication.
If you’re a bad suicide attempt survivor, maybe you tried to kill yourself because you wanted to get back at someone else, or it was connected to a breakup, or you are going to attempt suicide like five or six more times, or once a month, for the rest of your life. Maybe you’re manipulative in the system, like you’re trying to get medications, or you’re trying to make sure you have a place to sleep, so you’re in and out of the hospital all the time. Maybe you use some government assistance or something, but you just never get better. You’re never well again.
There’s only two ways to be. You’re either good and the sun shines out of your ass every day and you’re so excited to be alive. Today’s a gift! And if you’re not that, then you’re a bad suicide attempt survivor and nobody wants to hear from you. We don’t write about your experience in any books about suicide. You get called all these shaming things by mental health professionals. Nobody wants to treat you. You’re probably getting a borderline diagnosis—but maybe something else too, you never know—sometimes bipolar or whatever, but you’re probably getting a stigmatized diagnosis, and people don’t want to work with you. They don’t take your suicidal threats seriously anymore, even though you’re trying to kill yourself a lot.
There’s this dichotomy, and you have to be one or the other. It forces people into this place where they have to pretend to be a good suicide attempt survivor, which people really aren’t. Nobody’s like that all the time. We don’t expect people who don’t have a diagnosis to feel good every day, but fuck, if you’ve attempted suicide and you have a bad day, you’re doing something wrong, especially if you have a bad day in public.
We get forced into this space where we have to pretend that we’re well. We’re not allowed to be unwell. There’s this idea of wellness and illness attached to it, and it’s built on this medical model, and I think that’s all built on sanisms—this idea that people have to be well in order to be worthy of respect and care and considered full, actual people. You have to be sane, and you have to appear sane, and you can’t have any compromise to your sanity. When you’re outside of that, then you are subject to discipline and coercion and hospitalization and seclusion and restraint because we need to punish you, socially and culturally, for not playing along.
It’s not just the mental health system that does it. Sometimes you end up in jail. Sometimes it’s just socially that you have that experience, like nobody wants to be your friend or they say, “Don’t date her, she’s so crazy,” or whatever social critique there might be. It’s not just within the mental health system, although I think the most insidious bullshit happens there. That cover it?
Des: Yeah, I think that’s good. Now talk about suicide “prevention.”
Jess: The word “prevention?” Just pulling out all the stops here. Alright, I don’t believe in suicide prevention.
I don’t think the word “prevention” is the right word. I don’t think we should be preventing suicide. I think that we should be working on creating a world where there are better options for people. We should be supporting people who are in pain. If we’re preventing suicide at the expense of the people who are suicidal, then that’s a garbage field. I don’t want any part of that.
I think, sometimes, we get so focused on suicide prevention from a perspective of how it impacts us as the not-suicidal people—I said that in a weird way because I’ve been a suicidal person, but I’m not anymore. Mostly. But we get so caught up on the prevention part that we forget about what this is supposed to be, which is that, I think, ideally, we don’t want people to be impositions. We don’t want the world to be a place where people feel driven to make that choice—and it’s absolutely a choice that people make. We try to make it not one, but it is, and nothing we have done or can do has stopped people from killing themselves. They die in hospitals. They die in jails. They die out free in the world. Prevention doesn’t work. It’s not a real thing. We can make a better world, and we focus on the wrong stuff, so then we end up doing all of these interventions that are about controlling a person and controlling their choice, instead of making it a choice that they don’t need to make.
I believe more in creating a world where we’re mitigating the life circumstances that make people feel that way.
Des: What would you rather call it?
Jess: I don’t know what I want to call it. I’ve been marinating on that for a while. I don’t know. It’s like, don’t be an asshole. Don’t be an asshole-ology.
From a research perspective, I like the term “suicidology,” because it’s neutral to whether we’re preventing it or intervening or whatever. Western Mass RLC talks about alternatives to suicide. There are things I like about that. That’s a very peer-y way to talk about it. “Psychiatric justice” is the term I use.
If we live in a world that’s not all about saneness, or that has psychiatric justice, then suicide looks really different in that space. I don’t think it goes away. I think, in theory, all suicides would be preventable if we could make a world that was perfect all the time for everyone, maybe, but that’s not a thing. That’s not a thing that will exist, so all suicides aren’t preventable. But we can do something to make the world a more livable place for more people.
Des: Should they be?
Jess: Should all suicides be preventable? I don’t know. I don’t want people to prevent me from killing myself, so I don’t want to say yes to that. I want to have that on the table. Having suicide on the table is super important to me.
Jess: Sometimes things are really, really bad, and the idea that there’s a way out is really important. The worst things that have ever happened in my life were during times when I felt trapped and like there were no choices left, so that feeling that I always have that choice is really important to me. And to a lot of people I know who have been through terrible shit. It really matters to have this fundamental control over your body, and living and dying, to me.
Des: So it’s an option, but do you think you’ll use it?
Jess: I don’t think I’ll use it unless it’s, like, an apocalypse scenario. Then, yes. I’m not trying to live without indoor plumbing and the internet, really. I have kind of a low threshold for how long I’m going to live during the apocalypse.
But beside that, no, I don’t think I’ll kill myself. I think I would do a physician-assisted death, which I don’t think is the same as suicide, usually. Sometimes it is, but I think I would do something like that if I had a terminal illness or was really physically unwell.
If I was hospitalized, I would kill myself. Like, if I got a three-month certification, I think I would rather kill myself than do that. And if that happens, I want my obituary to say that I was driven to suicide, and I want it to name the hospital and the people who work there. Then I’ll be a really bad suicider.
I am not kidding about that.
Des: I know. I feel like people don’t know very much about peer support and why it’s good, or how to access it.
Jess: Peer support started when institutionalization happened—well, a little before. People were escaping institutions and living in these camps outside of them. They were supporting each other as they were coming off all kinds of crazy medications. They hadn’t built any skills about how to get through the world because they’d been institutionalized. That’s where peer support started is in these camps surrounding institutions. Some people argue about other things, like that there were hospitals where they let the people who were patients help each other and stuff. Peer support’s kind of existed forever, but I think, in the U.S., this is the agreed upon space.
Then, when deinstitutionalization happened, people were just kicked out onto the streets. That’s when it became really, really important, and out of that movement, there have been lots of spaces where peer support has developed. I think there are some spaces where it’s been co-opted and some spaces where it hasn’t. I think it’s political by nature and always has been.
Warmlines developed as an alternative to hotline services. warmlines are a number you can call [to talk to a peer]. Warmline.org is where you can find if you have one. Peer support is pretty underfunded, so there’s a lot of limitation on options. You’re more likely to find it on the coasts than other places. We’re really lucky in Colorado to have peer support be as accessible as it is through the warmline.
The first evidence base for peer support came from a place called Soteria House, which was this place where they had patients with schizophrenia. Schizophrenia, at that time, had been a diagnosis where they had made no positive movement in its treatment, and they just let patients support each other and then all of a sudden, they were having all of these great outcomes. That was the first research evidence base for peer support and that was in the 70s. Soteria House is still around. You can find them.
Since then, there’s been quite a lot of evidence built around peer support. It’s sort of the single best intervention, and I think the thing that makes it work is that connectedness and mutuality and shared power that we understand [one another]. We can approach each other without judgment and the goal in it is that there isn’t a power dynamic—that one of you is not a professional, one of you can’t use systems of power against the other, which is a harder thing to maintain than you might think on the surface. But that’s the thing that makes the relationship work, so the person’s in it with you, not for you, or not trying to manage your care or your treatment. They’re sticking through it with you.
Des: What is sanism?
Jess: Sanism is discrimination based on people’s perceived, or actual, sanity or insanity. People are given privileges and they are treated as better, more reliable, more worthy of trust, more capable, than people who do not behave in ways that the world has constructed as sane. This is not based on anything real, just like other kinds of discrimination. It’s like drawing a line between this is what’s good and this is what’s bad, and because you’re good, you get to have power.
Des: Give me real-life examples of sanism in action.
Jess: In a heterosexual relationship, if a man is abusing his partner and she does something to retaliate, then she’s perceived as crazy because women are more likely to be, because there are other intersecting privileges with this. Women are more likely to be perceived as insane. If he calls her crazy, then anything she says about this stuff, or if she does something crazy, anything she says about the stuff he did to her before—even if he had been beating her up for breakfast, lunch, and dinner for months—anything she says is not credible anymore because she’s not well.
Or, once you’re hospitalized for something, you go to your counselor and they tell you that you’re never going to be able to work again or you’re never going to be able to get a degree, or you’re going to have to get used to the idea of living in your parents’ house—that kind of stuff.
Des: Talk about the positive outcomes with these experiences in your life.
Jess: I feel that I’m much more strong than I ever knew I was. Going through these experiences has made me feel pretty sure of myself in a lot of spaces that I don’t think I would have been otherwise. I have a lot of confidence about my ability to get through things.
Disclosing about the things that have happened has brought me to find some of the best, most important relationships too. There’s a kind of bond that you have with people who have been through this stuff that you don’t have with other people. It just feels really different. It feels really safe, and I don’t think I knew that was possible. I think back to times when I was really bad at having friends and really bad at having relationships and was just like, “What is going on? Why can’t I do this?” Going through all this stuff brought me to people who are good for me and who understand me.
Jess: Did I answer the question about suicide still being on the table okay?
Des: I mean, it’s kind of an extreme answer.
Jess: I know.
Des: But it’s real.
Jess: It is.
Des: Not everybody needs to have the same answer. I prefer the honesty. I ask that question because of all the stories that we were sold for so long— that you have to be the good attempt survivor. I don’t think that was true to the majority of our experiences at all. I think there is still hope to be found in living life and having that as an option if you need to.
Jess: Yeah. My life is good. I’m not like, “Oh, suicide’s on the table, so I’m fucking depressed. I’m suicidal all the time.” No, I actually think stuff would feel a lot darker if it was off the table for me. I think things would be a lot worse.
Des: If you were able to address the reader—any reader, given that you know a lot about the project and who reads, and it’s not all the same kind of person—what would you want to say to them?
Jess: I think I would want people who are going through it or who have been suicidal to not just know that they’re not alone, but that you don’t have to be alone, and that it’s okay to seek people out in whatever way you want to do that. And that it’s not crazy to be suicidal, and that, even if it is, it’s okay to be crazy.
You get to make choices in this about how you want to live, and that can include medication or not, and it can include therapy or not, and it can include telling people or not. Even if that moment of being suicidal is really important to you or if it wasn’t, it doesn’t have to define anything else about your life. It’s just history, like everything else.
Thanks also to Alison Rutledge for providing the transcription to Jess’s interview.