Despite my lengthy history in the Mental Health System, which spanned over three decades of my life, I was rarely at serious risk for suicide. Now, in hindsight, I know what caused me to want to do something actively to end my life.
Back in 1983, I put myself in a mental ward. I desperately wanted help with my eating disorder, but no one took these types of problems seriously back then. The ward was rather nice, so I returned many times. Nothing good ever came of it, but I always hoped this time, it will do some magic. Every time I left, I’d realize my eating problems hadn’t been solved at all.
A year later, in a flash, I knew that the “great” psychologist I was seeing didn’t know what he was doing. My eating disorder had gotten far worse. He was a humbug. I saw no way out of the situation.
I think this is the reason most people kill themselves. Sometimes, we’re not even aware of the trap we’re in. Society tells us there’s something inherently wrong on the inside. Now, I know that notion is false, but then, it caused me to feel terrible about myself.
I had picked up the idea of overdosing from a gal I had met on the mental ward. She sat across the table from me and made hand-to-mouth gestures, showing me how she rapidly took pill after pill. Was dying the answer? On a cold night in January, 1984, shortly before my 26th birthday, I swallowed a lethal dose of psychiatric medications and anything else I could find within reach.
What resulted was devastating. I woke up in a hospital after being in a coma. My best friend called me and told me she never wanted to speak to me again. The nurses , usually kind, were now hostile. I had no visitors. I told myself over and over that I wished I had died. I felt even more trapped.
My parents got me out of the hospital and into a rehab place. Was this supposed to help my eating disorder? The place sure promised a cure. But as soon as I arrived, I was told they didn’t know anything about eating disorders.
I was stuck there with no way out. The staff completely ignored me if I mentioned my eating disorders. I was given all sorts of medications, only to be disappointed that these were no cure for what was truly wrong.
The rehab place filled out paperwork for disability, saying I had schizophrenia. There was no other way to get me the payments except to give me some arbitrary diagnosis. To say I had an eating disorder wasn’t going to float because ED’s weren’t considered serious enough. That diagnosis, a complete lie, haunted me for decades.
Over the years, I faced discrimination because the drugs made me shake all over and gave me pimples. I was discriminated against in employment and academic situations. The only place I found acceptance was within the mental health system itself. That was, in part, what kept me trapped within it.
When I was 39 I was stuck at McLean Hospital. From there they were going to send me to a state hospital and lose my state-funded housing. The staff at McLean were uncaring and lazy. Looking back, I know darned well what was wrong: The hospital had given me far too many shock treatments a year previously and I had become so confused that I appeared psychotic. They were scared they had permanently damaged me, and were avoiding a lawsuit. Not even knowing what was wrong with me, I took an overdose which did nothing except put me back in McLean. I know why, in hindsight, that the attempt never went on record. The hospital didn’t want it known how badly they screwed me up. Truthfully, it wasn’t death that I desired, but a drastic change in my situation.
I got away, defying everything they claimed about me. I was lucky that the effects from the shock treatments wore off. I went to college and after five years, earned my long-awaited bachelor’s degree. I earned my master’s as well.
I still had both feet in the mental health system, and this was my downfall. My boyfriend died. My dog died. I was raped when I was 50 years old. All this was ignored by those that were supposedly helping me. The claim was that I had something wrong inside, some disease, and no one recognized the real things happening in my life.
It was now 2012. Due to stress, my eating disorder became even more disabling than ever. No one even cared anymore. I made hundreds of calls, begging for help, but was always turned down. Finally, I made active plans to kill myself, seeing no way out.
I went to the police to report the rape. I hoped something could be done to stop the man from assaulting others. This would be my last deed on earth, my gift. I was shocked, though, that the police said it sounded like I had fabricated my story. Even though I was secretly on the verge of dying, it seemed that no one cared or took me seriously. I had no voice.
I had been planning suicide now for about a month, in a foreign city. I tied up loose ends. I didn’t want anyone to stop me, so I said “See you soon,” instead of “Goodbye.” I felt like an awful liar. At night, I cried and begged God for forgiveness for what I was about to do.
The day of my flight was approaching. One of the hardest things was saying goodbye to my little dog, Puzzle. The dogsitter put her in the car, and I saw the look on Puzzle’s face as they drove off.
“Oh my god. I will never see my little girl again, and no one even knows or cares.”
I had no plans to use the return plane ticket. I was in London a few days and then it was the Big Day. I recall getting in front of a webcam and showing the camera all the pills I planned to take in an hour or so. The timing had to be perfect to ensure I wasn’t “rescued.”
Suddenly, I realized I was lying in bed and many hours had passed. I hadn’t taken any pills. I had accidentally fallen asleep. If I took any pills now, the housekeepers at the hotel might find me still alive the next day. I knew I had blown it. I got out of bed and decided to walk around the city.
People were still out, even at 11:30 at night. It had rained, but now, the London sidewalks were dry. I began to laugh inside. I was alive.
When I reached 55 years old, I no longer had any desire to die. I gave that year a name: “55 and Alive.” Dying wasn’t going to solve anything. A failed attempt at suicide would make my life far worse. I needed to get away from the bogus psychiatric diagnoses. I needed to change what others thought of me. Was this possible?
Sometimes, you can’t change those around you, no matter how hard you try. People have their preconceived notions, which are nothing but gossip and bigotry. You can’t change an entire community, nor can you erase your medical records now that everything is computerized. I assumed there was no way out. This time, though, was different. I refused to give up. One night, unbeknownst to anyone, my little dog and I boarded a plane at Logan Airport, leaving behind almost all of my belongings, and I never looked back.
I didn’t need to change myself, only to get away from the oppression of diagnosis. I love my new community here in South America. I am healthier than ever. I run 10k every other day. Today, I call myself a survivor. No one can take my story away. I’ll never go back to the Mental Health System that had caused all the trouble. You can count on that.
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.