It struck me this Martin Luther King Junior Day that I cheated death 10 years ago by surviving my own attempt to kill myself. I’m a survivor of suicide. Naturally, this momentous anniversary has caused me to pause and reflect over my life and the last ten years. To give you a perspective about how lucky I feel, suicide is the second leading cause of death for 15 – 24 year olds in the United States. In the last decade that rate has generally increased. In 2014 (the most recent year for which full data are available), 42,773 suicides were reported, officially making suicide the 10th leading cause of death for Americans. After cancer and heart disease, suicide accounts for more years of life lost than any other cause of death in the United States (for more information visit http://www.save.org/).
It pains me when I think about how those who suffer with feelings of hopelessness in silence may be afraid to speak out for fear of judgement…possibly being thought of as overly dramatic attention seekers who are being cowardly or selfish. I decided to share a post on my Facebook page where I publicly celebrated my 10 year anniversary of survival and gave thanks for my family and friends who’ve been there for me during the darkest times of my life. I did not expect to receive so much immediate and public loving support or have people share my post joining me in breaking the silence and stigma around this issue. Since I was little I’ve been fascinated by the power of communication and storytelling in one form or another. I think one of the greatest advantages of being human is our ability to share our experiences with each other with words and storytelling so we may pass on our knowledge and insights.
That’s why I decided to write this blog post sharing my own experience in more detail. It is my effort to help you understand why I didn’t reach out for help sooner, what thoughts exactly lead me to such an extreme point and how I was treated by some after I survived my attempt. I also choose to recount my story in case there is even the slightest chance I can encourage anyone in need about what they can do differently. I hope it is a lesson to get help if you need it or recognize potential warning signs in someone you know as soon as possible, so anybody would be better able to avoid what I and my loved ones have been through. I’d also love to help people think twice before ever judging a person suffering from mental illness. The following is a glimpse into my story, a prequel of events I did not share in my TEDx Rainier 2013 talk:
I grew up in the south as a pastor’s daughter. There is a history of charismatic preachers, missionaries, and evangelists on both sides of my family. Both my parents were great with people, which was a very useful model for me to have since we moved eight times before I was a freshman in high school. Though my dad was a great pastor who was called on to rebuild congregations after challenges (like when a church split or when a pastor died), we were never involved in any mega church movements, and so we were not wealthy by any means, according to American standards. My mom and dad typically had to work a second job in order for us to make ends meet.
That meant my sister, brother, and I grew up as latchkey kids. We took care of ourselves after school until our parents came home around 6pm or later at night. Bethany, 15 months older than I, took the lead in raising me and Clint (my younger brother by 6 years). I have many fond memories of our childhood.
Despite our economic deficiencies, I enjoyed Saturday mornings when my dad took us to the local library; he would spend time working on his sermon, while us kids picked out a boatload of books and movies to borrow. They served as a stand in babysitter during the week. My internal data bank of movie references is so strong I should probably put it to use on a game show. Then of course there are all the summers spent in backyards during the recesses appointed by Bethany. She instructed “school” sessions so that we could help my brother’s grades improve over the break rather than suffer upon his return to school in the fall.
Unfortunately, memories with my sister end at the age of 18 when she was killed in a DUI collision on March 6th, 2005. Two years later during the trial proceedings, we would find out that the driver, Steven Johnson, a repeat DUI offender, admitted he regularly smoked marijuana, had used cocaine two days before the crash, took Ecstasy the day before the crash, and drank beer and a “Jägerbomb” hours before the crash. Yet he insisted he was not drunk that night (though he did take a 45 mph curve while going over 90 mph). In court, we also learned in the minutes following the crash, while my sister lay bleeding out on the side of the road, her girlfriend, Crystal Fischer, died in the front passenger seat, and a friend I had grown up with was trapped with severe life threatening injuries in the backseat of the car. Steven Johnson was walking away with nothing but a scratch on his face while he used his cell phone to make 13 calls – not a single one of those calls was to 911 asking for help. Talk about rubbing salt in the wound. It’s hard to describe my anguish and rage upon hearing those facts. It was like someone ripping back open a scarring wound on your chest, tearing out your heart and stabbing it 13 times…to say the least.
As you can imagine, from the moment I found out about my sister’s death, I was devastated. My parents had to hold me down the night after her funeral ceremony as I writhed and screamed, begging to let me go sleep on her freshly covered grave so she wouldn’t be alone in the dark with the thunderstorm raging outside. I remember waking up the next day realizing it wasn’t all a bad dream, that this was the new reality I was going to have to face as life moved on. I realized how much my behavior the night before had freaked out my family and I had this thought that now, I had to take my place as the older sister, and be strong. I was going to take the lead and care for the rest of my family. So I handled my grief mostly by keeping as busy as possible. Four months after my sister died, I got engaged to my first love and high school sweetheart while serving on a missions trip to Swaziland to help orphans suffering from the AIDS. I was in college, majoring in psychology and missions, a member of Army ROTC, as well as many clubs on campus, taking a full load of classes while also working part time as a nanny.
As I managed go on about my life attending my classes, making straight A’s, serving as a devotional leader to freshman girls on campus, I pushed away the thoughts in my mind (like, ”I don’t understand, how could this be? Where is she? It’s not right, this is so unfair!”) whenever I was triggered to think about my sister. Almost everyday somebody would get a certain look on their face and tone in their voice and ask me, “Hey Kristin, how are you doing with…everything?” Of course, they weren’t asking about how the wedding plans were coming along or how I was keeping up with juggling all my commitments with my heavy school load. My response to this offer of support was always something short, and with a sweet airy voice like, “Well you know, you can’t change the past.” Or “Okay, I’m just doing my best to keep on keepin’ on you know,” followed by a, “But thanks for asking!” and a quick change of subject. I didn’t want to tell anyone that I was afraid to stop and really ask myself that question. I was afraid to process my feelings. The thoughts and feelings were all so strong and yet so muddled. It seemed as if they’d taken up space like a dark edged abyss in the back of my mind. I was afraid that if I let myself explore them, I could lose myself, like I might drown in a deep dark sea, boiling with anger and pain that I wouldn’t be able to escape.
I didn’t tell anyone I was having trouble falling asleep, keeping disturbing thoughts at bay as I prayed for everyone else in my life except me. I was even afraid to talk to God at night about how I really felt. I felt I had no right to ask Him questions and even if I tried I wasn’t getting an answer. My bible reading served now as a textbook for my theology and missions classes. Each time I studied or recited scripture without feeling better, I became burdened by a new layer of pain as I began to feel guilty for having the thoughts and feelings that plagued me. At night, I was bombarded with flashbacks full of pictures I saw on the news or during the court proceedings. I would try to think about something else, but they would interrupt my thoughts – the mangled car being unwrapped from a utility pole, my sister’s blood stains on the concrete road, or I would see her smile and hear her unforgettable laughter, my heart aching as I finally fell asleep only to have nightmares of my sister dying in some new way, night after night, without me ever being able to save her. It was like a painfully real and hellish version of Groundhog’s Day.
I woke up early, hours before my alarm clock every morning feeling nauseated for hours. It was hard to eat and eating didn’t help, neither did any medication. I didn’t realize an excess of cortisol was the cause of my morning sickness, flooding my body, taking a toll on my nervous system with each nightmare. Even though I was taking abnormal psychology at the time, somehow I didn’t think of myself as having the symptoms of depression and anxiety. I think I thought it was normal and to be expected to have these kinds of thoughts after such a death of a loved one, and at the same time I also felt such shame as a Christian for having them, that I didn’t want to talk about it. I just wanted to try my best to keep my chin up and focus on everything else going on in my life.
The straw that broke the camel’s back was when my fiance suddenly broke up with me over the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday weekend in 2006, just months before our wedding date. He simply told me he didn’t love me anymore, that he didn’t want to get married and he hadn’t and didn’t want to talk with anyone about it – not our marriage counselor, not our parents, not any of our friends. It came out of the blue to me. I was shocked and confused and he absolutely refused to talk any further about it. It didn’t make sense. This guy had been there, supporting me better than anyone, since my sister’s death. We had been together since I was 13. We were at the same college, taking the same classes, in the same clubs, both members of Army ROTC.
I stayed in my parents home that weekend, locking myself up in my sister’s room. It had been kept like a shrine to her with all her belongings still in place. For three days, I literally did not eat or sleep. I cried as I poured over my sister’s photo albums. It was like the floodgates had opened up on my grief. My mind flipped back and forth between thoughts of my sister and thoughts of my now ex-fiance. I didn’t let anyone in the room, not even my best girlfriend. I came out in the middle of the night to use the restroom and get water. On Monday morning while my parents were at work and my brother was at school, I left my sister’s room to go into the office and pay my credit card bills, which I knew were due soon. Both were maxed with charges I didn’t recognize, so I called my ex-fiance who admitted to using them, but didn’t want to see me to talk about what was going on, which caused us to have a dreadful fight. I told him I was so sick, sad, and angry that I wanted to die and I hung up the phone. I waited in a crazed zombie like state, my heart beating like a rabbit’s for an excruciating minute…he didn’t call back. It hit me with an icy hard finality in that moment – it was really over, he didn’t love me, he wasn’t going to tell me why he broke up with me and by the looks of it, he wasn’t going to be of any help whatsoever to pay back the credit card debt and non refundable wedding deposits. The life we had planned out together since I was 16 just got flushed down the drain. My heart ached for my dear sister that I’d turned to since I’d worn diapers. It hurt even worse to think she could never be there to comfort me ever again.
The best description of what happened next was that I had a “brain attack.” It felt as if the thoughts I was having were causing me to feel like I was on fire. It was torturous. Within five minutes, I felt like I couldn’t take it anymore. My hormonal 19 year old brain had a crazy person driving at the wheel. My thoughts told me that my pain would always be there, it would always hurt this badly, or worse, as time went on. That I could never recover from these losses, my heart was too broken. The only way for me to end the pain was to end my life.
Warning: the following paragraph shares details disclosing what I did to myself. I’m writing it so others can get an idea of what my experience was like – facing the moment of actually deciding to take my life. For anyone out there who’s been prone to being triggered into self harming or idealizing suicidal thoughts, skip to the next paragraph.
I grabbed the biggest, sharpest knife I could find in the kitchen drawer, as well as a bottle of my dad’s pain pills from the bathroom cabinet. I remember going to the bathroom and the pain actually creating relief as I dragged the knife back and forth across my wrists. The physical pain was actually a feeling that could compete with the feeling of being emotionally “on fire.” Therefore it felt like a welcomed distraction or ironically, a way to not lose my sanity even further because it at least kept me from thinking and instead made me feel in the moment. It was a glimpse for me of what it might feel like to be a cutter. I then took the whole bottle of pills just to make sure I’d covered my bases.
I remember crying as I locked myself in the bathroom door and sitting in the tub. I remember the last thoughts that crossed my mind. As I felt myself beginning to fade, feeling light headed, like I was sinking. I remember thinking, “Holy shit, my family!” I remember thinking about how it would be for my brother and parents and all my friends and family to have to go to my funeral less than a year after my sister’s and what a horrible thing that would be. I remember feeling scared that I couldn’t take back what I’d done. I remember thinking, “I just want to be free of the pain and be with Bethany wherever she is.” As my eyes closed and I breathed in the last breath I can remember, in that moment I thought if there really is a God who is all powerful, wise, loving and just, then He would know exactly what to do with me next. I remember thinking that if he wanted to send me to some fiery hell or condemn me to eternal separation from Him – fine! I already knew I had made a mistake because of my intense pain, so I wouldn’t want anything to do with a god like that. Though I felt fear, like I was jumping off a cliff, I also felt a calm resolution and a sense of relief.
I am so thankful I woke up. My mom wrote about her experience of feeling urgently led to leave her work in the middle of the day and come home to be with me in a book she called, “When You Walk Through The Fire, The Bethany Rivas Story”. Besides living to see what my loved ones went through, I don’t think I’d ever be able to attempt again on the basis of what might happen to me at the hospital if I survived again. My hospital experience was awful. When my eyes opened, I was in a trauma room in an ER with bandages on my wrists.
For starters, I was immediately forced to drink a charcoal liquid to relieve the contents of my stomach. This may sound petty in comparison to the sum of all the other experiences I’m mentioning, but the taste of those 10 ounces of artificially sweetened charcoal paste alone would be enough to make me never risk a suicide attempt ever again. It was like drinking the most disgusting burnt chocolate cake shake imaginable. I had to hold back the urge to spew it right back out. I remember sweating and trembling as it churned in my stomach for 10 minutes, doing it’s job of absorbing the pills I had swallowed.
Unbeknownst to me at the time, my dad’s pain pills had already caused an allergic reaction in my body with a medication I’d taken earlier that morning. This caused me to be in and out of a coma for the next 72 hours, waking up only to vomit blood. I came excruciatingly close to experiencing both liver and kidney failure. My family or friends would not be allowed to see me for a while, since I was too incoherent to speak up for myself, and the hospital’s policy for suicide survivors meant no one could be in my room until I could have a coherent conversation with a doctor first.
During those three days of purgatory, when I was slipping in and out of consciousness, I could hear hospital workers talking about me. I remember a male nurse saying how stupid (that was actually the word he used) I was for taking the particular medication I had, how there were much more effective pills one should take to die quickly instead of going through what was happening to me. I remember hearing a few ladies saying how selfish I was for putting my family and friends, who were crying in the waiting room, through all this pain. How I was another typical dramatic and cowardly teenager for trying to kill myself simply because my fiance had broken up with me.
I heard all this while I was in the most weakened, painful and vulnerable daze of my life. I felt like the wisp of a spirit caught between two worlds as my body was fighting to live. I remember the first day I really woke up and could barely prop myself up. I was hungry, but my stomach and throat hurt something awful. I was told I couldn’t have food; I now had a bleeding ulcer. I was given tea on a tray that was rolled next to my bed. I remember asking a nurse in my room with all the voice I could muster at the time if she would help me drink it since I was too weak to really hold the cup. Either she didn’t hear me or she ignored me. I ended up spilling the blazing hot tea all over my chest and my right shoulder (giving me a scar). The nurse actually yelled at me for being clumsy as she resentfully patted me down with a towel.
I don’t remember having a conversation with my doctor, but I do recall seeing my mom by my bedside each time I woke up to vomit. I have a single strong memory of her, my youth pastor and the pastor who had been giving my fiance and I premarital counseling, standing around my bed, laying hands on me as I wretched blood as if from a scene out of the movie The Exorcist. As they prayed for me, my body suddenly became very calm and I fell into a deep sleep. When I woke up, I was starving, but felt much better. The pain in my stomach and down my throat was much more faint. Nurses gave me ice chips and said if I didn’t throw up in an hour I could eat. I hadn’t vomited in 24 hours and was showing signs of rapid improvement. That first meal tasted like heaven to me at the time. Looking back on the hospital’s baked fish, greens, mashed potatoes, and jello, it probably would taste mediocre now.
The next thing I remember was a conversation with my family where I cried as I apologized for what I had put them through. They spoke words of love and encouragement as they held me and we all cried together. Then my mom told me that Andrew, the older brother of a girlfriend of mine whom I’d grown up with and had been very close to, had died from committing suicide while I had been in a coma. I had looked up to Andrew who had only been a few years older than my sister Bethany. He was such a kind guy who had always seemed really successful. I wondered why I had survived and he had died. We later found out that Andrew’s antidepressants had caused him to have suicidal thoughts, a side effect young people were particularly prone to who took the medication.
As soon as I was well enough to be able to leave the hospital, I was required by law to go to a psychiatric ward for an evaluation over the course of a few days. There was a nice EMT who rode beside me as I was strapped to a gurney in the ambulance transporting me to the mental health ward. He asked permission to know what had made me want to kill myself. I told him about my sister’s death and the broken engagement. I remember seeing deep empathy for me in his eyes as they teared up and he said he was sorry and that he hoped I would find a way to be able to feel better soon. He reached into a cupboard and then handed me a stuffed “Lucky” Care Bear and told me I could hold onto it for comfort and have it to keep me company because he knew the place I was going to could be scary.
He was right. There was no Nurse Ratched, but it was a One Who Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest crazy place for sure. I met many interesting characters. My roommate suffered from severe schizophrenia and would scream at me each night, telling me to stop staring at her (even though I was facing against the wall as I lay in my bed on the opposite side of the room). I would do my best to pretend I was asleep, hoping they’d send someone in if necessary since there were cameras in the ceiling. There was an older gentleman, resembling a grey haired Danny Glover, who would constantly come up to me and the other women in the ward while holding out his arms as he asked for a hug (spoken in a baby voice) as he rocked back and forth. This guy refused to wear any clothes besides a hospital gown, tighty-whities, and socks. And many times, I’d see him running around naked, apparently refusing to wear even those.
Each day I was there, I went to a group session where we did something like art or pet therapy and then I had a private session with a counselor. My counselor was a kind and gentle woman. In our talks, she helped me to think of what I’d just been through as a rebirth. That I could be a phoenix rising from the ashes, a caterpillar turning into a butterfly. It was a metaphor I rolled with. A few months later I would get my first tattoo of a butterfly with a verse reference of Genesis 31:49, “May the Lord watch between you and me while we’re apart from each other.” Which stood for a vow I made to God, my sister, and Andrew, that I would never try to take my own life again, that I would live life to the fullest as long as I could. To this day I think about living my life in a way as big and fulfilling enough for all three of us.
I decided to take a semester off from college so I could return after my ex had graduated. I would live at home and go through more counseling as I worked part time. When I came back for my next semester as a sophomore at my private university, there were classmate’s who didn’t engage with me anymore. There were some people who didn’t make eye contact with me. I don’t know if it was because they were at a loss as to how to interact with me after what happened or what but that was awkward and discouraging. It felt like judgement and abandonment.
If you’ve seen my TEDx talk, you know that my life actually became more challenging before it became better. During my senior year of college, I was struck with debilitating neurological symptoms that resembled the signs of such conditions as epilepsy, multiple sclerosis, narcolepsy, Tourette’s, and dystonia. Doctors could not treat or diagnose my symptoms for over 18 months! I had to drop out of my classes again, only 4 months before I was to graduate.
There were times my symptoms caused me such pain and isolation, I longed for any kind of relief…even if that meant to disappear. But I never ever entertained the idea of trying to end my life again. If the thought came to mind, I would always immediately remember how my sweet younger brother had broken out in hives, so bad they bled, due to the stress of my suicide attempt. That imagery was always more painful to me than whatever challenge I was dealing with in the present moment.
I decided to make it through each day, a moment at a time. I would do whatever I needed to in order to hold on until the next day. Sometimes I’d sleep my feelings off for hours, take a long bath, listen to music, or go outside to lay on the grass, looking up at the sky while I cuddled with my dog – whatever worked to get me through that present moment to the next thing I could look forward to. I was going to hold on to whatever I could, hoping this next storm in my life would soon break. Thankfully it did, on June 20th, 2009, when I finally found the relief from my symptoms. The desperately needed relief came through Rapid Trauma Resolution, an advanced clinical hypnotherapy.
I’m so glad my mother left work early that day and was able to intervene. I am so very thankful for the support of my dad and my brother, as well as all of my friends and family, who have been there with me through thick and thin. Back then, I had no idea I would meet Dr. Jon Connelly, founder of Rapid Resolution Therapy, and find such an immediately effective treatment to alleviate my symptoms of PTSD, grief, depression, anxiety, and Conversion Disorder. That I would be able to find vibrant health and joy back in my life, as well as a fulfilling career where I’m helping other people everyday who have suffered as I once did. Or that I would get the chance to share my story on the TEDx stage so I could speak out against the silence, stigmas, and other assumptions surrounding mental health illness.
Everyday, especially now as I count my blessings, I pray for those in need of a voice and support. There were many times a well meaning person, be it a friend, family member, or therapist, would look me in the eye promising me that life had it’s ups and down’s but would eventually get better. That’s a really hard statement to believe when it seems like life is going to hell in a hand basket. The most reassuring thing anyone could give me was there presence and listening ear. The best promise they could keep was to be there for me as I needed it. Looking back, I can imagine how if a few things would have been different, I don’t believe I would have attempted suicide or suffered from Conversion Disorder. This alternate past doesn’t have to do with magically disappearing the hardships out of my life so they never challenged me in the first place.
I wish I had been given an owner’s manual on how my mind and body worked at every developmental stage in my life, from the time I could read. I would have appreciated knowing from a young age that there are practices that can prevent or reduce such symptoms (like how to use daily routines of exercise, mindfulness, NLP, self hypnosis, meditation, etc.). I would have been in the habit of being able to regularly manage my emotions and take control over the meanings I associate to events. This would better equip me to deal with such major crisis in my life. It is during our hormonal teenage years, with underdeveloped prefrontal cortices (a part of the brain in control of decision making) when we need the practices most. If I had known the warning signs and symptoms of PTSD, depression or anxiety and the different treatments to make them go away… that it was a good thing to reach out for help and refuse the fear of being shamed or stigmatized – I can see how my illnesses would have been unlikely to occur, persist, or escalate as they did.
That’s why I wholeheartedly appreciate and support the efforts of such organizations as The Hawn Foundation using the MindUP Program, Mental Health First Aid, The Jed Foundation, The Tony Robbins Foundation, and so many others to accomplish this very mission. Heck, if I had been given a copy, or known to read Tony’s Unlimited Power: The New Science Of Personal Achievement, as well as the Awaken the Giant Within, I’d have been so much better equipped to deal with life’s challenging events. I’m sure it would have made a world of difference in my outlook and ability to handle things in my life, including my sister’s death.
If there is something I wish someone had told me sooner, it’s that our brain’s are really complex and prone to triggering the kinds of thoughts and feelings I was having after highly devastating experiences. That our brains are also highly malleable and can learn to process memory, emotions and thoughts differently in an instant through a scientifically proven process called memory reconsolidation! That it can be reinforced to do so in a healthy way more and more over time. There are many therapies and methods for getting this to happen. I wish that I would have had that knowledge sooner as well as the courage and determination to seek appropriate and immediate treatment for my symptoms until I found the results I was looking for. Or that someone who cared for me, a medical professional I had seen, heck ANYONE, had stressed these things to me until I got the help I needed.
If you, or anyone you know, have these symptoms or have thoughts of suicide or self-harm, please know that you are not alone. It is possible to find relief! I encourage anyone out there in need to seek the help of trained professionals. You can text 741-741, a Crisis Textline, anytime day or night and you can always call 911 for immediate help. I hope my story can be of help to you and is one more voice, heard strong and clear, putting end to the stigma of mental illness.