This week’s post is by Kathy E., who wrote to us out of the blue. “Just this morning I Googled ‘suicide attempt survivors’ and discovered your blog and John’s TEDTalk,” she wrote. “What a relief to hear people talking about this, (and a blessing)!”
She offered to write a guest post, and this is her coming-out:
I’ve kept a deep, dark secret for almost 25 years. No one, other than a few therapists, has any clue that I attempted suicide when I was 26. Not one friend. Not one family member. I’ve never told my story in its entirety. Yes, it’s still a big skeleton in my closet, and I’ve often had flashes of wanting to “come out” and help others who have struggled to face their past and live more peaceful and fulfilling lives. At the same time, I put it in the recesses of my mind, since I was afraid of it leaking out to family and friends. What would they think?
By “owning” what I did, I’m exposing more of my soft, vulnerable side, which is scary, but at the same time, it’s my most beloved side of myself. It feels so good to share my story — like a weight has been lifted.
Not understanding and respecting my uniqueness led to that suicide attempt almost a quarter-century ago. I truly believe that many others suffer because they stuff their true selves to “fit in” based on real or perceived expectations from family and society. Our beauty is to stand out, but that’s really hard to do if there’s no stable foundation and support from others around us.
“Why would we be afraid to find out who we are? First, because to have all the power that is really mine I will have to be responsible. Second… people think of me as strange when I am in any way unique, and I will be unique if I have all my powers. Put those two together, and it becomes unsafe to let our power become manifest.” (“When Love Meets Fear,” by David Richo)
I’ve never used the term “suicide survivor” to describe myself, perhaps because I’ve hidden it so well for so long. Plus, it’s such a taboo subject oozing with fear and shame. How do I define myself? It’s how I’m naturally wired: I’m a highly sensitive person and an intuitive feeler. This was the reason I felt different! I wasn’t weird, unloveable or incapable. I simply wasn’t standard fare, and my parents weren’t able to understand or properly nurture me.
Most of my life, I operated against my true nature in a world that traditionally rewards extroverted, driven and “together” people who have prestigious jobs and boatloads of money. Admittedly, I faked it pretty well. Now what’s most important to me is experiencing and talking about my feelings and connecting with like-minded individuals at a deeper level.
In my family, I didn’t want to be a burden, so I stuffed my feelings and, ultimately, myself away. I didn’t feel seen or heard. Complicating matters was being the middle child, where one often feels like he/she doesn’t fit in or belong. My way of keeping safe was to be a “good girl,” which meant looking cute, doing well in school and excelling as an athlete.
From the outside, my childhood looked plenty normal, growing up in an upper-middle-class community with parents who had strong values like education and religion. However, my father was a workaholic who was always right, and my mother was a martyr who forewent any of her needs to raise four kids and manage the household. From what I can remember — which isn’t much, as I was very shut down — emotions never felt accepted. “It will be OK” or “Big girls don’t cry” were common messages. As a kid, I spent a lot of time alone in my bedroom wishing myself away.
With that as a backdrop, I became a scholar-athlete in high school, then went to a highly competitive university, where I continued to struggle with self-esteem. I isolated a fair amount in an attempt to hide my insecurities, while still being relatively popular. I was in a sorority and on intercollegiate sports teams. After I graduated, I got a job with a major bank on Wall Street and had my first bout of depression, triggered by the belief that I simply didn’t think I was capable of doing the work. I had zippity-doo-dah in the confidence department, and at the time “failure” equated to death. It was as if I was about to be exposed and was constantly on edge.
I left that job and moved out west to a small mountain community to pursue a job opportunity. By that time, I was feeling better about myself and transitioned pretty easily. After a few years, given the transient nature of the community, I decided that it would be prudent to go back to school. I always felt like I went to college for someone else, to get decent grades vs. learning for the joy of learning. This time, I wanted to do it right.
I had a very difficult time moving from a small town to a big city to attend graduate school. I didn’t know anyone, I felt like a misfit and I didn’t think I had the smarts to succeed. I felt worthless and became depressed yet again. What really put me over the edge was working at a banquet for a wedding reception. I saw a newlywed couple and thought that it wasn’t possible for me to be happy or in love. I felt like it wasn’t in my DNA.
I never sought help, since I didn’t think anything would change. (Plus, at the time there was a big stigma around therapy.) So one night, I took a bunch of sleeping pills and slit my wrists. There wasn’t much bleeding, and I quickly realized that I wouldn’t be able to go through with it. I drove myself to the hospital — and I distinctly remember the irony of putting on my seat belt!
I can’t remember much about what happened except that I left the next day, of my own accord. The old lady who rolled me out in a wheelchair asked me what happened. I felt ashamed and remained quiet, looking somberly at my bandaged wrists repaired with stitches.
The hospital gave me the name of a therapist — he ended up being a total quack — and I drove myself home. I think I missed two days of school. I graduated two years later with a 3.8 GPA, with the support of a kindly ex-priest/therapist who worked on a sliding scale.
After graduate school, I joined a well-known consulting firm and had a successful 20-plus-year career as an HR executive. I was never really satisfied in that environment — I had a couple of bouts of depression early in my career — and I left more than two years ago to figure out “what’s next” and live more authentically.
I’m now semi-retired, working as an independent consultant. As an accomplished athlete — I’m an endurance mountain bike racer and former two-time national off-road triathlon age group champion — I want to share more of my passion for fitness and the outdoors through building an women’s athletic apparel business as well as a life coaching business targeting the athletically inclined.
I often downplay my athletic accomplishments, even though I’m very proud of what I’ve done and actively support others in their desire to test their self-imposed physical limits. I believe being an athlete has been my saving grace. I am passionate about being fit, and it makes me feel good. I’ve met many like-minded, wonderful people who have become friends. I have a greater of connection when I’m in nature doing something physical — it’s a critical source of strength, confidence and inspiration.
To be clear, I’ve had my struggles. I think I never considered suicide again because I felt so ashamed and just as lonely afterward. It was no longer an option, so I assumed my path was simply to suffer and survive. It’s taken a long time, but I don’t feel that way anymore, even though it will be a lifelong challenge to discover, appreciate and honor my genuine self and believe that I belong. My intention is to continue to explore and accept all aspects of myself — my sensitive side, fun-loving and playful side, serious side, insightful side and quirky side — and to be more vulnerable and give and receive love more openly.
Last year, my sister-in-law told me that I seemed so much happier. Recently, a friend said that I always seemed happy. It was such a huge compliment and testament to all the work I’ve done on myself over the years. My work now is to continue transforming the belief that part of me is still damaged into a belief that I’m perfectly imperfect.
Mad in America hosts blogs by a diverse group of writers. These posts are designed to serve as a public forum for a discussion—broadly speaking—of psychiatry and its treatments. The opinions expressed are the writers’ own.