Dior Vargas is a mental health activist. She was 27 years old when I interviewed her in Brooklyn, NY, on September 26, 2014.
The first time I tried to kill myself, I was being made fun of a lot in school. There was this one girl who was so mean. She was really, really cruel. I was having a lot of problems at home. It had been like that for years. I think the combination of all of that—not feeling okay at school and not feeling okay at home—[is what led up to the attempt].
I did the quintessential type of suicide [attempt] where I wrote a note. I don't have it. I wish I did. It was very immature in the sense of, “Well, you know I'm being made fun of... If you want to know whose fault it is, go to this person.” That is why it was very vengeful and very childish to me.
That was the first time. I kept on doing it. Every time something wasn't working out, I was like, “Alright, well. I'm gonna go and do this again.” It seemed very normal. Every time, I would take whatever I wanted or needed to overdose, and then I would wake up the next morning and be like, “What the hell? I'm still here? I'm not right at anything, am I?”
I don't know how many times I tried, but the last time was after my first year of college. That was a really hard time. I was really depressed. I was just starting to take anti-depressants; I was also diagnosed with a thyroid condition. It was not good. I was away from my family, and I had never really been away from my family before. I was in a whole different environment—Northampton, Massachusetts. That's such a small town, and I'm used to New York City.
Des: All the white people.
Dior: Yeah, so many white people! They would smile at me in the street, and I'd be like, “What are they gonna do to me?!” You don't smile in the street! You just have a mean mug and you keep on going!
Things with my mom were never truly good. She was a young, single mother, and she didn't have the tools to take care of herself. I feel like she depended on my sister and I a lot to help her deal with those things.
[Once I got back home], I had a fight with my mom and a fight with my sister. You know how when you talk about things, you say them and you kinda see the connections again? Right now I'm thinking all this, but [at the time] I was like: I'm not happy in school and not happy at home—I thought that, finally, once I went home, I'd feel better. But not at all.
I was really upset and I started crying. [Around noon, I said I was going to take a nap.] Before I took the nap, I went into my real overdose. I guess, that time, I did something that really took. I woke up around seven [when my sister came to get me for dinner.]
I went into the living room and was so out of it. I felt kind of drunk, very lightheaded, and weird. I was still just nodding my head. [My sister asked me what was wrong. I’d told her about my prior attempts, so when she asked if I’d tried again and I said yes, she said I had to tell my mom.]
I was like, "Oh, crap..."
I ended up telling my parents. My stepdad used to work at a health clinic when he was younger, which automatically deems him a professional who knows all the answers. He was like, "Okay, we gotta hurry up and take her to the ER."
[My family] was saying, "Don't fall asleep! Don't fall asleep!" It was very surreal and very weird.
I thought, “Oh shit, I think this is gonna kick in this time.”
They rushed me to the ER. My mom was crying hysterically. She smacked me because she was pissed off. I guess she immediately went to feeling, "How selfish can you be? How can you be doing this to me?" My mom is very dramatic. I think most Latina mothers are dramatic. It's like, "How could you betray me?!"
I remember going to the ER and having to say, "Yeah, I tried to kill myself," like you do. I remember them giving me charcoal—that wasn't fun. It was disgusting. They ended up keeping me overnight. It was about one or two days where I was in the hospital room. Everyone came to see me. It was a huge revelation that I had been depressed. I guess it's hard for people to notice that when they're trying to live their own lives. I don't know. I mean, I don't ever want to explain or try to understand that. It's not my responsibility to try to understand why they weren't aware.
They had a nurse sit by my bed the whole time. I was watched overnight. I was like, "What the hell? I don't want to deal with this.” I was nineteen, I think, so I was still very young, and very like, “Why is someone watching me? I'm not gonna do this again.” No one believed me, obviously.
Then they took me to a psychiatric ward. I remember the building. It was Uris 8—the Uris building of Lenox Hill, on the 8th floor. I kept my bracelet. It says "2006" or something. I kept it as a memento to remind me that I don't want to go back there.
When I first got there, I remember going down this long hallway, and the door getting further and further away. I was terrified. It wasn't the way that people portray these psychiatric wards, but to me, it was exaggerated in the sense that I had never been around people who were dealing with things like that. They took all my belongings and put them in the "sharps closet." I didn't have anything. I was really upset about that. I had to go to a window to get my medication.
It's funny, I haven't really spoken about this specifically.
I was sharing a room with this elderly lady. I didn't really speak to her very much, but there was a special on Oprah, showing the concentration camps [during the Holocaust]. She pointed at the screen and said, "I was there."
I was like, “Look at me saying, “I'm depressed, nothing's working out for me, blah, blah, blah.”” It kind of put things into perspective. Not to minimize my experience, but I was like, “Oh, god. Look at this woman! She's fucking survived all this shit!” It made me think about things.
A friend came to visit me. She brought me a pen and a journal. I was hiding that like crazy. It was like hiding cigarettes or something you can't have in jail. I wrote in the journal at night. I also remember being in the ward, just sitting there, not wanting to talk to anyone. I was not in the mood to converse or really have any conversation or connection with anyone else there.
I remember just sitting there with nurses standing there, staring at me, and writing notes, and I'm just like, "Oh, fuck." My mom tried to get me out of there, and they were like, "Nope. She's trying to use your pity and your sympathy. We're not gonna let her out of here just because you say so."
I [decided], “Okay, I gotta find a way to get out of here. I gotta get animated. I gotta play this role of like, “I'm trying to get better!””
In all honesty, in order to be able to leave, I told them whatever they wanted to hear. I basically was like, “Okay, I'm gonna say, “I realize I've been selfish, and I realize there's more meaning to life.”” I said everything, like, textbook. I wanted to make sure I could act sane enough for them to say, "Okay, she's ready to go. She's fine." It was an act. The whole thing was so dramatic and so ridiculous at the same time. It was crazy. I did whatever I could.
Survival skills—you try to kill yourself, and then you find yourself in [a situation] where you're trying to survive. This is funny.
When I got there, I wanted to leave as soon as possible. The minute that I was able to leave, I didn't want to. I finally felt like I was with people who knew what I was going through. I had not been around anyone who shared these same experiences, so I was like, “I kinda like these people. I don't wanna go.” It was kind of like changing schools or something. You're glad the grade is over, but you miss your classmates. It was bittersweet.
I know this older woman who would say, "Oh my god. You're so young! Why are you here?" I took her number so we could keep in contact. I always thought it would be kind of weird to just call her and say, "Hey, do you remember Dior? The one you met at the psych ward?" It would be a weird beginning to a conversation, so I never called her, and never had any conversations with her after that.
Overall, that's the gist of what happened. It's hard now because I've put myself in a position where my family is always [asking me], "Are you okay? Why are you alone?" I feel like they're hyper-vigilant. Not as much as they used to be right after I did it—it's been eight years since then—but there are times where I have to say to my mom, "No, I'm not going to do it. Don't worry about it."
Now I'm thinking about my activism. I'm very passionate about it and it's something that pushes me forward. But I also can't help but think that the things I do are me finding reasons to say, "Okay, this is why you survived." There are many times where I'm just like, “Why the fuck am I still here?” I can't say, “Oh, okay. I survived, I have a whole new outlook on life.” That's not true. I just had a week of vacation from work, and all I did was sleep. I didn't want to do anything. I'm definitely not over this. I'm constantly trying to find reasons for why I'm still alive. There has to be a concrete reason—a tangible one—for me to say, "Okay, this is why I'm still alive." Otherwise, I'm like, "What's the point? Why am I still here?"
Des: You mentioned that Latina moms are drama queens. As activists, we’re trying to get people to talk about suicide productively. Is there a cultural divide there? Should we be treating the Latino population differently in terms of telling them how to deal with it?
Dior: In some ways, yes. There's not a one-size-fits-all [solution]. I think we have to be aware of the traditions and customs that people have. There are borders that people have to go against, like the borders of being in a traditional Latino family. Your family is everything. You have to always be there and put them first, versus this new assimilated life.
I grew up in New York. My mom did, too. My grandmother did. Nonetheless, my father came from Ecuador. My grandfather did, too. Even if you're born in the U.S., you still feel like you're assimilating, in some fashion, to regular culture. You have to be aware of these things, because it's definitely not the same experience for other people. Not to say that everyone else isn't family-oriented, but it's just more difficult. I think it's nice to be able to say certain things in Spanglish, or certain phrases in Spanish, that I think really explain something in the best possible way.
Des: You're also expected to take care of your family when you get older.
Dior: I'm expected to take care of them now, actually.
Des: How would you have told your mom to deal with it, if you were an outsider?
Dior: I've never been asked that before. I've been in therapy for years and that hasn't been brought up. I guess it's easy to say, "Oh, put yourself in someone else's shoes," but [I would say], “Try to think of what your daughter has been going through. Life hasn't been easy, and this is her way of expressing that she needs help.” I guess it's hard for me because my mom never really had the tools to do so. She was still a young girl, too. By twenty-two, she was married with two kids. I'm twenty-seven and....
I would want her to be told, "I'm aware of what you're dealing with. I know your life isn't easy, too. I know it's a huge task to take when you have a child that you have to worry about as well, but try to find some type of connection with your daughter. See what you can do. You may both be in pain, but you may be able to connect on a deeper level."
I was always with my grandmother because my mom was trying to find work. She had this huge responsibility. Trying to find a deeper connection with us [would have been positive]. I think that I've never really had that much with her.
Des: My mom had me when she was 18, so I totally understand growing up with your parents. The way that we tend to approach suicide prevention is to get people to talk about it, and go to therapy. I come from a really low-income family. Therapy is not a thing. Mental health maintenance is not real in that sphere. What do you do when you've got kids—or even adults—who are in this situation and trying to kill themselves? How do you help them? That's stuff we're not really addressing.
Dior: There definitely should be more communication within families. It's very much like, “Okay, you got your food. You're okay. You're not hungry, you've got a roof over your head, you did your homework.” After all those things are checked… that's the most people feel like they can do. There needs to be more talking and saying, “How are you feeling? What's going on with you?”
I mean, I was always told that I was loved. I never doubted that. Well, no. That's a lie. I always doubted that I was loved, but I was always told.
Des: What did your family say—not necessarily when you were attempting—but when you were upset or depressed, what was their reaction? How were you treated on the day-to-day?
Dior: Talk about sound bites. "Stop being a cry baby." This is my mom. "Toughen up." There was always this underlying [feeling of], “You're annoying me. Why the hell aren't you the way that I want you to be?” Very much like, “Stop fucking crying!” She just couldn't take it.
My grandmother was a lot more understanding. She said, “Crying is not weakness. That's just you expressing yourself.” I honestly don't think I'd be where I am today without her. She was so much more sensitive when it came to things like this.
My sister felt more like my mom than my mom did. My sister would always speak for me. “Yeah, she's trying to say this.” Not long ago, when they'd ask us questions, I'd kinda look at my sister like, “Well, what are we gonna say?”
Des: Like, what's the consensus?
Dior: Yeah. My mom was the worst in terms of handling it, my grandmother was the best, and my sister was the friend I was able to confide in. There were a lot of different responses and reactions.
Des: You said that you still struggle. What does that look like?
Dior: I have a very, very negative point of view. Very defeatist, very self-deprecating. If you were to ask, “Who is Dior?” I’d say, “She is just so sarcastic, negative, and self-deprecating.”
This is so funny: in college, I would donate blood wherever, because there would be blood drives. Anytime it was around Valentine’s Day, I would make sure to donate blood. “Here. Take my blood. Give it to someone who actually will experience Valentine’s Day with someone! Because I’m always freakin' single!” [I’m] that type of dramatic. That definitely comes from my mom.
I’m so negative in my point of view. I was accepted to this really great program which I was in Chicago for last weekend. It was an amazing opportunity. I applied three times and finally got in! Then, when I got home, I turned it all around [on myself]: “Now I have this huge responsibility. I’m part of this class of women who now have all these tools to do effective activism. Fuck. Now I have to compete against these women.”
I feel like I have all this stuff to do and I don't want to do it, which is why I slept for so many days after I came back. This is an awesome opportunity. I have all these tools and resources to help me. But I automatically [thought], “I’m gonna fail. What was the point of this program? It’s just another spotlight for me to show how stupid and worthless I am.”
My therapist would say, “Oh, you're really hard on yourself, the way you talk to yourself.” There's a saying that, if you talk to your friends the way you talk to yourself, you wouldn't have any friends. I definitely would have no friends. I really don't like myself most of the time. I just don't. I always view myself [as the one person in] a group of friends who is just so damn annoying. You can walk away from him or her, but if the person is yourself, you're stuck!
Des: You went home and slept for a week. Did you feel better?
Dior: It was a mixture of, “There's nice weather; I should be taking advantage of the fact I have these days off. I should go to the Cloisters or have a nice staycation,” and, “What if I just want to just sleep? There's nothing wrong with that.” I feel better and then I don't.
Des: What do you do when you recognize that you're beating yourself up?
Dior: I keep on going. Like, “I'm on a roll. There's no stopping now!”
Des: Do you think you have a mental illness?
Dior: Yeah, I think that's valid. I had a conversation with a friend yesterday and he's like, “Don't say there's no cure.” He means well, like most people do, but he's like, “Oh, I saw this TedX talk about how medicine is killing you. I read this thing about how it's not really a chemical imbalance. It's like the placebo effect.” I know [he wants to] help me in some fashion, but it's also like he's saying, "You're just a lazy piece of shit. You just need to change your way of thinking and then you'll be fine." It's not that freakin’ easy.
In all honesty, I don’t know. Maybe I don't care how you describe it, but I know I have something that, unfortunately, affects the way I think. It really doesn't matter what the hell it is. I’m constantly dealing with it, trying to live nonetheless.
Des: Are you taking medication?
Dior: Yep. I’m taking the well-known Prozac. I took Celexa. I think I took Zoloft. Wellbutrin was the worst! My mom lost all this weight on it, so I was like, “Ding ding ding! I’m going to take this so I can lose weight!” It was the worst! I wasn't even on it for that long. It was terrible, so I quickly went to another one.
Des: How long have you been on meds?
Dior: Since college. Ten years.
Des: What do you think about meds? How do you feel about having to change so much?
Dior: I have my moments where I’m [grateful for them]. They put me in a better place so I can deal with things.
I have my moments where I stop taking them. Again with the dramatics: “If this is truly me, if this is my truly depressed, angry self... why don't I just appreciate it and really take it on? This is who I am. Let me go with that. Why do I have to take these happy pills?”
I have moments where I just don't want to take them. I’m in that spot right now. Laziness is more like it, but I just don't want to take them sometimes. Then I suffer the consequences, and I go right back on them.
It's just different for different people—whether or not you decide to take them. Do whatever you need to do to feel better. No one can tell you what you should and shouldn't be doing. Everyone’s experience is different. If you want to take medication, go right ahead.
Des: What else do you do to maintain?
Dior: I berate myself, but I’ll be like, “Stop this shit.” Or, there will be times I’m crying at my desk and I’ll be like, “Oh god, I can't be losing it at work.” A lot of me just cursing myself out. Tough love, I guess.
I try to go day by day. I feel like I’m not there yet, but I’m a lot better than I used to be years ago. I try to remember, “I’ve gotta get bills paid, so I’ve got to go to work.” Maybe try to connect with friends, so I don't feel alone. It's exhausting.
Des: What do you think about recovery? Are you in recovery?
Dior: I don't hate it, it just sounds weird.
Des: Can you ever be recovered?
Dior: I don't think you can. Maybe that's the pessimistic part of me, but I feel like you'll always be in recovery. It’s never gonna be like, "You’re done!" Closure is a daily thing. I remember being in therapy and having moments like, “When is this going to be over? I don't want to be this person anymore. I don't want to deal with this anymore. I want this to end. I can't take it.”
Then, as most things do, therapy would end. I would wipe my tears and leave to go do what I had to do… You've got to just keep on chugging along. Stupid as it sounds, I feel like I have no choice but to keep on moving.
Des: Is suicide still an option for you?
Dior: It's not an option. I’m not saying I haven't thought about it. I had an argument with my mom and I found myself in that spot again: “I could do that. That would solve a lot of problems. I wouldn't have to pay any bills!” You know how silly it can be. I’m not going to lie and say I don't think about it. But would I ever go through with it? No. That's very much my younger self.
Des: What do you think that our stories have to offer to the mental health field, or to science? Why are these stories valuable?
Dior: I feel like the focus is on people who have [died by] suicide, in looking at the past and what could have been done [to prevent it].
[What about the people who tried to kill themselves, wake up the next morning, and have to deal with that after the fact? Their stories can help us figure out how these people can continue going on with life. We can use them to find what makes us keep on going, instead of waking up and being like, “Oh, it didn't work? Let's do this again, immediately!"]
I feel like we just want to get away from things. We don't want to deal with things anymore, so we're trying to find a way out. But that “out” is so permanent that, once you're there, you can't do anything about it. You can't turn back.
A lot of times when I tried, I would take an overdose and as I was about to go to sleep, I would start crying: “This shit might work and I don't want to die. I just want things to get better.”
Des: What do you think of the “It Gets Better” idea?
Dior: “Easy for you to say! Maybe you're in a space where you can say that.” [It’s nice to hear you’re not alone], but sometimes you're so frustrated that you feel like, “I don't care what people are dealing with. I’m dealing with this. Why do I have to go through this? Yeah, it gets better, but that's not helping me.” There's this anger and resentment towards some nice people who have been able to get through this because [they are no longer in the same] position... It’s very complicated. It’s good, and then it's bad.
Des: What would be more helpful than "It Gets Better" for people like us?
Dior: Just say, “Yeah, it's fucked up. You’re pissed off and you have every right to be pissed off.” Validate people's experiences. Say, “I can't tell you what the future holds for you, but know that I hear you. I know you're dealing with a really hard time. I’m not going to say it gets better, because sometimes it doesn't. Not every story ends with a happy ending.”
If you're hurting, afraid, or need someone to talk to, please reach out to one of the resources below. Someone will reach back. Please stay. You are so deeply valued, so incomprehensibly loved—even when you can't feel it—and you are worth your life.
You can reach the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255, Trans Lifeline at 877-565-8860 (U.S.) or 877-330-6366 (Canada), or The Trevor Project at 866-488-7386. If you don't like talking on the phone, you can reach Crisis Text Line by texting HOME to 741741, or check out Lifeline Crisis Chat. If you’d like to talk to a peer, warmline.org contains links to warmlines in every state. If you're not in the U.S., click here for a link to crisis centers around the world.
Dior's story is sponsored by a grant from the hope & grace fund, a project of New Venture Fund in partnership with global women’s skincare brand, philosophy, inc. Thanks also to Susannah Laragresty and Michele Jarchow for providing the transcription to Dior's interview, and to Sara Wilcox for editing.
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