Emily Fritz is a youth counselor at a residential program for abused and neglected girls. She was 34 when I interviewed her in Lexington, KY, on March 13, 2015.
I've suffered from depression my entire life, in various forms. It hit hardest when I was twenty-something. I was working at U of L, and that's when I really got into suicidal ideation and got back into self-injury. Sounds like a hobby, doesn't it? "I got back into it. I was away for a little bit."
It escalated from there. I went through many therapists and many drugs. I'd say our story really picks up in 2000-something. That's when all the fun really started. I got involved with a twenty-one year old I was working with. Never do that, on many levels. Never do that.
The reason we got involved was that I was involved with a transgender person. She was involved with a transgender person, too. I had broken up with mine, because she had punched me once, which was fun. I think this twenty-one year old saw that as her opportunity to prey on me. She swooped in and we started a relationship because she was going to leave him. Totally. That's the way it always works.
During that whole tumultuous thing, I tried suicide the first time. At the hospital, I got really pissed off. I'd slept for the entire night and the next morning. The nurse comes in—it's not even the doctor—the nurse comes in and diagnoses me with borderline personality disorder.
I'm like, "I just tried to fucking kill myself. You guys let me sleep the entire night. What the fuck is up?"
I'm arguing with her, and she's like, "No, you're borderline."
I'm like, "Where's the fucking doctor?"
It ended up that I walked home from the hospital because I live a few miles away. It was a pretty good jaunt. That was an interesting suicide attempt. My priest actually took me to the hospital and stayed with me for a while—that's the first time I ever saw him pissed off. Of course, then I wake up, get told I'm borderline, and am sent on my way, basically.
Des: How'd you do?
Emily: I did alright for awhile. Then I got involved in another relationship. Relationships are my downfall. This one was with a married, pregnant, bisexual woman. We met [on a dating website]. I refer to her as "She Who Shall Not Be Named," even in therapy, because it was very traumatic. The relationship, obviously, was very unstable. She was married and pregnant, then got a divorce, which she said I forced her into. I [told her], "If you want to get divorced, get divorced. Whatever." Then we were together. She already had a kid, by the way.
It lasted about a year. The way it ended was very traumatic, adding to the emotional and mental abuse she did on me. Everything was my fault; I was to blame. She accused me of being abusive, even after the relationship ended.
The way the relationship ended was I said I was going to kill myself, which I was. I get a little touchy when people say that's a controlling technique. Not for me. I was really going to kill myself. She said she was going, and I said, "Fine, go. Don't worry about me. Whatever happens, it's on me."
She calls the cops on me. They take me to my therapy appointment, where I argue with my then-therapist about how I'm not going to kill myself, but at the same time [life's] not worth it. She calls the cops. They take me to the hospital psych ward, where I stay for the usual seventy-two hours.
I get out and start getting these messages from my ex, who is saying, "Oh, I love you. I miss you like crazy." Meanwhile, she doesn't know I know that behind my back, she's telling everybody I'm abusive and crazy.
Obviously, I was not good mentally. I ended up trying to kill myself again. I made the mistake of messaging my ex and saying goodbye. She called the cops on me. They come to pick me up. The EMTs come in, bandage me up, take me to the hospital. Not my finest moment.
I was in the hospital for about a week. That, in itself, is very traumatic. While I was in the hospital, my mom was at my condo getting the blood stains out of my carpet. I was in there on my mom's birthday. It was very lovely. It was great.
I got out. I was okay for a little while, meaning like two or three months. I was maintaining. Then [my mood] went down a lot. It was becoming very clear I was going to try again, so I went to residential treatment in Chicago and California. I got back around the summer last year. I was okay when I first got back. Now I'm kind of on a little more iffy ground again, trying to figure stuff out.
During residential treatment, I was introduced to dialectical behavior therapy, which has saved my life in little ways. The therapist I have now does DBT. That's really helped me get through some stuff lately, like job changes and all that. I know the trauma work from the relationship is coming, and that's really gonna be hard. I don't know how I'm going to deal with that.
That’s my story in a nutshell. I know that was all over the place, but it has been a lot of dysfunctional relationships that led to bad behavior that led to suicide attempts.
…I walked around after the last attempt with six stitches in each wrist for a week, week and a half. That was a big self-esteem boost. If you go out anywhere to buy something, you're like, "Here's the money, don't look."
My mom has this picture in her kitchen of the whole family when we went out for my sister's birthday about a year ago. That was right after I had gotten out of the hospital, so I had the stitches in my hands. I was doing fabulous. I hate that picture. I hate it because I remember what happened leading up to that picture, and where I was in that picture: going out to a family dinner with Band-Aids on. It was summer, so I had short sleeves. At least my watch covered one wrist, but I was trying to eat with my wrist down. That's traumatic in itself.
Des: They all knew?
Emily: My immediate family. We were also out with my uncle and aunt.
Des: Was it just a mix of, "I don't want these people to know," and also, "I'm feeling ashamed being around my close family, who does know?"
Emily: Oh yeah, it's both. For my close family to know, that's okay. I didn't want them to talk to me about it. I didn't want any, "Well, what the hell happened?" about it. I felt a lot of shame about it. I think I got past the shame at some point. It's not really a highlight in my life, but it's also not something I'm like, "Don't tell anybody." I don't go around broadcasting it. I just email strangers on the internet about it.
Des: That's why we're here!
Emily: Yeah. During all this time, of course, I'm doing various degrees of self-injury, so...
Des: Talk about that.
Emily: I started self-injuring when I was in high school. I've done it off and on. I got hardcore with it in college, and then again when I was in my relationship with She Who Shall Not Be Named. That was a toxic relationship. I mean, even my body reacted to it; I had headaches all the time, I was throwing up a lot. I can read the signs now that it was a horrible relationship. After the relationship, of course, self-injury would get really big.
Des: With you, or in the world?
Emily: Oh, with me. People are starting to talk about it more, but it's still like, "You do what?" I do it for emotional release and to quiet my mind because it just numbs me out. I still do it occasionally. I'm better at dealing with it than I have been, but I still do it sometimes.
Des: Why do you do it?
Emily: I get overwhelmed. I get overwhelmed by good feelings and bad feelings. People don't really get the good feeling thing. For me, emotional regulation is a big issue.
Take a coworker I like—when I have interactions with her, they're great. I love 'em. That can be overwhelming to me because it goes from, "Oh, that was a pleasant interaction with somebody I'm attracted to," to my entire world for a few hours. It's way too much to handle, so I do it to stop that and calm down.
Des: That’s interesting. I don't think I've ever met anyone who would hurt themselves after a good experience.
Emily: It doesn't happen every time, but sometimes my mind can't process the emotion. I think that’s what it is—it can't process it. It can't put it in the proper category of, "That was a great experience. Hold onto it and let's move on to another part of a day." It becomes, "Oh my God! That was such a great experience. This is our entire day." It's like a reverse anxiety attack.
Des: It makes total sense, it just didn't occur to me that it could happen that way.
Emily: I didn't know either—until it happened to me. The same is true with bad emotions. They can be overwhelming.
Des: Can you talk about the shame involved? Do you feel it more after one experience or the other?
Emily: In terms of the suicide attempts, I don't feel as much shame. I think about my first suicide attempt occasionally. I don't know what to make of it because I've met other people who've tried overdosing. They get their stomachs pumped and they're in the hospital for awhile. I took [the overdose], they let me sleep it off in the ER, told me I’m borderline, and sent me home. I don't know what to make of that.
The second time, of course, there's a lot of shame. Not only about the fact that I tried it, but that my mom was over there [cleaning up] blood stains. I had this abusive relationship that was toxic and [made me question], "How could I love this person? How could I still love this person in some ways?" That's probably the most shameful part to me.
As far as the suicide attempts, I don't have a lot of shame. Like I said, it's not something I broadcast—until now, apparently. I've never been shy about my struggles because I think it helps somebody else who is not at ease with their issues. I had a conversation about this with my therapist just the other day because I said I was doing this interview, and part of the reason I am doing it is I can help someone else. If I can save somebody's life, then maybe I've done something.
The reverse? I don't do that for myself at all. I have this weird hero complex, but this does not extend to myself.
Des: It's hard to take care of yourself. It's harder to take care of yourself than it is other people.
Emily: Most definitely.
Des: Would you say you had more shame about cutting?
Emily: Yeah, there's always shame around that. The only step I've taken in sharing that, outside of close relationships, was at a staff meeting at work last month. I did a little tutorial on self-injury because we have a lot of girls who self-injure. I didn't share a lot about myself. I think it was kind of intuitive that I knew a lot about it because I've done it, but that's something I play very close. I'd say, yeah, I have a lot of shame around that outside of certain circles. I don't talk about it.
Des: Why do you think that is? I have a lot of shame about it, too.
Emily: Who does that? You know?
Des: Who tries to kill themselves, though?
Emily: This is true.
Des: I guess one seems more taboo.
Emily: I don't know. I think it's more acceptable, with suicide, to have that one time where you hurt yourself. That's acceptable. If you're going to repeatedly cut yourself or burn yourself or bang your head or whatever, you must be crazy. [With suicide], you had a hard time. Obviously, you must have some huge issues if you hurt yourself. That's the way I see it, anyway.
Des: It's always really interesting, because the two go hand in hand often enough. Sometimes self-injury builds up into a larger problem, and people will use those same implements in a suicide attempt. The motivations are different, but that confuses a lot of people. [It’s especially interesting] to meet men who hurt themselves and to see the different ways that manifests. It's almost more socially acceptable for men to do it because it's masked in other things.
Des: It's happening right in front of us and we don't see it for what it is.
You had a bad experience in the hospital that first time. What about other times?
Emily: Well, I've been in numerous hospitals numerous times for varying lengths of time. A lot of people don't believe this, and they're kind of shocked when I say it, but the best people you will ever meet in the world are in psychiatric hospitals or psychiatric units. Best people you will ever meet.
Des: The patients or the staff?
Emily: The patients. The patients are some of the most fun people, too. I don't know what it is; they're just good people. I've left with friends from every hospitalization. Of course, there's always someone you just hate that you can't do anything with because you're locked in a room with them.
The staff? Depends on the staff. Some are more into their jobs and pay attention more than others. I remember I was in a hospital in Indiana where I had Ativan for the first time. Fabulous drug! Fabulous drug. You don't care about shit when you're on Ativan. I was able to kind of con more of them out of the nurses. I was like, "Are you not paying attention? 'Cause I'm, like, abusing over here."
Des: What did your therapist say when you told her you were going to do this?
Emily: Oh, she was all about it. My therapist is very open. She cusses a lot, which is a plus. When I get really angry, I cuss a lot. She wanted to know what it was and was very impressed about the whole thing. My mom was more like, "Um. You sure you want to do this? I wouldn't do it." I said, "I'm not asking you. I'm letting you know this is something I'm doing."
Des: Moms get worried.
Des: The one question I ask everybody: is suicide still an option for you?
Emily: In some ways, yes—to be totally honest. I would love to give you the line about, “Your mind lies to you. I know how to fight it now and it's a struggle, but I'll get there.” Honestly, part of me believes that when I die, it'll be by suicide. Am I suicidal at this moment? No. Talk to me in a week, three hours, couple of days—who knows? I could be there. I don't have anything planned. I rarely have a planned suicide attempt. But in the back of my head, it's still an option.
Des: Why do you think it's still an option? Or, why do you think it'd be an option for anybody after they've attempted?
Emily: For me, personally, it's kind of like the ultimate cutting. Solves it all. You don't have to deal with shit anymore.
I know exactly what it will do to the people around me. I already know that because people have used the line of, "Don't you know what would happen...?" Yeah, I know. I really am sorry about that. I really am, but I've always kind of found it selfish that, if you're in such pain, you have to stick around so nobody else hurts. I'm just supposed to sit here and be in horrible pain.
But, in my mind, I keep repeating crap over and over. I had these bad relationships. I make bad decisions. Ultimately, that's the option to stop the cycle.
As far as anyone else is concerned, don't do it. It's really dumb. It is really stupid. As far as myself is concerned, why not? Go figure.
Des: It's interesting that that's the answer that I get. It's like, "Well, it's not an option right now, but it's an option." I don't think I was expecting that when I chose to word the question that way. I wasn't expecting such honesty. I don't know why, but I wasn't. It was always really shocking to me, and to hear, "Yeah, it depends on the day. Some days I do think it'll get better, and other days I'll tell you to go fuck yourself."
I think that's really important. I think that that may be a big part of the key to this.
Des: Why do you do that? Do you know? Maybe I'm a pessimist, but I have a hard time believing that a complete healing of that wound is possible. Maybe I just haven't gotten there yet.
Emily: I don't know. I don't think it is [possible], because I have my good days, like you said, and I have my really bad days. One thing to take away from DBT is: you will always have your bad days, but here are some tools to get through those. I think it's more realistic to think that there is no ultimate healing.
Des: Talk about your job working with these kids and how your experiences inform that. What do you take away from it, good and bad?
Emily: This is the first job I've ever absolutely, one hundred percent, loved. Totally. We have girls from everywhere in Kentucky. They've been abused and neglected. They have self-injury behaviors, sexualized behaviors, aggressive behaviors. Some have low IQs, some are high IQed.
It's my job, as a youth counselor, to help them in their dorms, which means I help them in my role as third shift. I make sure they're good throughout the night, and I help them get up for school and get out the door. I go on assistance calls in the middle of the night because one kid is going batshit crazy, or kids are fighting, or whatever. I absolutely love it, even on the days when they pee the bed and I have to deal with it. I'm cool with it. I absolutely love it.
My therapist pointed out the other day that it's a very triggering job because a lot of these girls deal with stuff that I deal with or have dealt with. I hadn't thought about it like that before. It's stressful because these are teenage girls, first of all. They're also troubled teenage girls, so you get more fun in one package.
I haven't thought about it as a triggering job. Stressful? Yes. But if a girl self-injures, I know how to appropriately respond—not by saying, "Why did you do that?" but by saying, "Well, what was going on?" to get the emotion behind it. I never realized I could be triggered by it, which was odd. But it's the best job for me, one hundred percent.
Des: I think when you emailed me, you mentioned that you've been a cutter, and you said that you weren’t doing that anymore.
Emily: Yeah, that was then.
Des: How does it feel kind of being an adult, understanding it on a different level, and continuing to do it?
Emily: I'm ashamed that I do it, but I don't feel a similar shame of, "I'm an adult, why am I doing this?" I'm very educated and intellectualized about it. People do this. I'm ashamed that I'm doing it because it's kinda fucked up. Especially with my job now—I don't want to be caught by management and have a wound open, and everybody's like, "Oh my God, you're bleeding!" I'm like, "No, that's me. I'll be back." It's not something where you're like, "Yeah! I'm a proud cutter."
Des: Tell me what you would want to tell someone who is reading your story.
Emily: Don't do as I do; do as I say.
Emily: Because, like I said, I'm the reverse. I would love to tell myself, “I'm not going to cut. I'm really gonna use these DBT skills. I'm not gonna try suicide again. I'm not gonna end my life when I try it. I'm going to talk to people. I'm going to ask for help.” I can't promise any of that. I never promise something I can't do. For instance, I will never leave a therapy session promising not to self-injure if I feel like I'm going to self-injure.
Don't follow in my footsteps.
But as far as what I would tell people: don't be silent. It is okay to ask for help. It's okay to say, "Hey, I'm struggling; I feel like cutting, I feel like killing myself." It takes a large amount of courage. It really does.
Find all the information you can. Educate yourself. I've read a lot about cutting, suicide, depression, and anxiety. That takes the mystery out of it. You're like, "Oh, hey! I have this community. We're a little broken, a little screwed up in some ways, but I have a community and other people suffer from this." It's kind of like being the gay kid in rural Kentucky: it's not widely accepted. Actually, you're kind of suffering in silence, but get on the Internet, look up stuff, connect with people, realize there is a wider world, and that you can find help and support.
Des: Have you found a community online?
Emily: I would say the only real community I've found online is a relationship abuse support group. I don't think I've had any online as far as cutting or alcohol abuse—I'm sober, as well—or depression or anything like that. I have the odd experience, now that I think about it, where a community appears around me. It seems like, everybody I meet, I meet at the time I'm supposed to meet them. I know that's very esoteric, but it seems like I get to have an automatic community for whatever I need. It's not to say I always use them.
Des: How important is community when you have gotten used to going it alone? Cutting is absolutely a super solitary situation. So is suicide. How do you handle the community, then?
Emily: It's very important. We're not the most social people when it comes to that stuff, but I like talking to recovering cutters. I've learned to never say, "Somebody who stopped cutting."
I like saying “recovering cutter," because [if you say] you stopped cutting, when you do go back and cut, then you have that shame. So I would say, when I'm in an era of not cutting, I'm a recovering cutter. I still feel shame if I have a relapse, but then I'm back to being a recovering cutter.
Community is very important. We often don't look at it that way because we're very solitary when it comes to cutting and when it comes to suicide, but community is very therapeutic.
I would compare it to being gay. When I talk about relationships, my straight friends can go a certain distance with me because relationships are kind of universal in some ways, but only my gay and lesbian friends can understand it fully. Only someone who's tried suicide can really get it. Only somebody who cuts or has cut can really get it. Anybody can get feeling really bad or really depressed, because most of us have been there in some way, whether we admit it or not, but not everybody understands taking the step where it's [become] unbearable and you have to get out of it.
One thing I really hate is when I hear people say, "God only gives you what you can handle." I'm a Christian and I don't even believe that. I really don't. I don't think God plays tricks with our lives, first of all.
They say, "You deal with this and then get over it; if something else comes along, you deal with it."
I'm like, "You don't get it. You don't get how soul-crushing [it is], how you see nothing but black."
I read a book once where the author described it, "Depression's not black, it's piss yellow." That's the way it looks. "You don't get what it's like to get to that brink unless you've been to that brink, so tell me again how God only gives you what you can handle. Please pass judgment on me again when you get to that point. Let me know how that works out for you."
Des: Talk more about faith, please.
Emily: I am a Christian. I'm Episcopal by trade, if you wanna say that. I grew up Catholic, but not the traditional Catholic that you're probably thinking of. The only Catholic school I had was preschool, where I stole from the nuns. I got caught, had to apologize, and then I stole again. Me and God have a long history.
I was told I had to go to church. I didn't understand church, so I really fought against it. I didn't understand why I had to go or what it was about. When I got to stop going to church, I stopped. I liked to say I was agnostic, but looking back, I never really was. Then I got involved with the Episcopal Church, and that's where I've been ever since.
I kind of fell out with my faith during my last relationship, not only because I was kept from going to church and then yelled at for not going to church, but because of the way the relationship ended. I was so pissed at God.
Oh, my God. I cuss at God all the time, just so you know. I'm not one to mince words. I mean, it's God. He can take it.
Emily: Just sayin'. But at the end of it all, He's still there. And I use "He" just for ease of words. God is whatever God is. I don't know. He never told me. My brain would probably explode.
My faith is very liberal. I don't think God discriminates against anyone. He doesn't like people who kill other people or judge other people, I will say that. I don't think God is as in love with the Bible as we are. The Bible was written by people. There are some really good things in the Bible, but there are also some things that are odd.
Really, when you think, the Bible is kind of like [the game of] Telephone because, as it was translated down, monks wrote stuff in the margins, they added stuff they thought needed to be added, and they cut out stuff. We have, maybe, the core of what it is, but I would prefer to get my information from God. The Bible informs my faith a little bit, but… I don't want to say I hear from God, but if I have a spiritual question and I think about it, an answer will usually surface from somewhere.
The thing that really informs my faith is asking, “Does it come from love?” Because standing out a street corner saying, "You're gay. You're going to hell," is not love. I don't necessarily agree with serial killers, mind you, but I don't believe they're automatically damned to Hell. I don't know what happens.
Des: Did you read about the Christian politician who is writing a bill so Californians can have the ability to kill gays with bullets?
Emily: I heard about that.
Des: Kill the gays with the bullets.
Emily: I'm like, "Really? 2015?"
Des: Are you 12? I'm going to kill you with a bullet?
Emily: This is what we have going on. That's like writing a letter to Iran and saying our president is a big meanie face.
Des: I read it and I almost cried because I was just like, "Are you kidding? People like you exist and someone put you into office, even?"
Emily: I know! This actually ties back into finding a community, being a suicide attempt survivor, and self-injury person. I'm a gay Christian. We are out there, believe it or not, and there are a lot of people who struggle with being a gay Christian. I'm like, "No, really, it's okay. God's cool with you. He did create you. Swear."
Des: Talk more about your faith and how it interplays with these experiences you've had. How does God feel about those things?
Emily: Well, I don't know. I'll tell you that much.
A lot of people have the argument of, "If you [die from] suicide, then God's gonna condemn you to Hell." First of all, I don't believe in Hell. I don't believe in the Devil. I can't reconcile that with my belief that God is all-powerful and all-loving. Then He would say, "I would love you, except when you..." I'm not saying He approves of everything we do, but I doubt He would condemn me to Hell for killing myself. I'd like to think he'd be a little more understanding. I don't think he would be thrilled to see me under the circumstances—I’m not saying God's pro-suicide. I think it doesn't make Him mad, let's put it that way. It makes Him very sad. I say all this as a person, and not as God. If you want to know, you'd have to talk to Him. Just sayin'.
My therapist said the other day that I had moved from a detente with God, to where I might have coffee with God now. We're slowly progressing. My therapist said she couldn't even have coffee with God. I was like, "That's between you and God."
Des: That's funny.
Emily: I don't proselytize at all. I'm like, "If you want to know about God and your relationship with Him, I can't give you that information. You really have to go talk to Him.”
I don't think you're going to Hell if you don't believe in God. I don't think you're going to Hell if you're Hindu or Buddhist or whatever. There are many paths to God. Christianity happens to be mine. I don't think God likes self-injury or suicide, but I don't think He gets “fire and brimstone” about it. I don't know. I just think that my behavior sometimes makes Him sad. He doesn't like it, but I don't think that will make Him reject me.
Des: Is there anything else you want to talk about?
Emily: My big thing is always, “Educate yourself.” I'm a very educated person and, in a lot of cases, self-educated. Never be afraid to open a book, regardless of the topic. If you feel like you may not understand why you self-injure, open a book. Read about it. Don't be afraid to investigate it. True, it may be triggering. If it is, wait. But know why you do the things you do. It's not because you're bad or wrong. Maybe your chemicals are not right. Mine aren't right, I can tell you that much. Cutting is also addictive, so maybe you have an addictive personality, and that's part of it. Just educate yourself. Don't be afraid of yourself. Ain't nothing wrong with you.
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. If you are being sexually abused, call the Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network's (RAINN) Sexual Assault Hotline at 800-656-HOPE.
Emily'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 Andy Dinsmore for providing the transcription to Emily's interview, and to Sara Wilcox for editing.
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