Erin Oliver was 34 when I interviewed her in Albuquerque, NM, on October 8th, 2014.
Right now, I'm trying to [get on] disability. Because I'm bipolar, it kind of makes it hard for me to work in a lot of different ways, but I am going to film school. I want to work on superhero anything. I'm in love with The Flash and Arrow and those kind of things. I have been since I was a little girl, but can't really work in regular environments.
My story's kind of different facets of things. As far as being a survivor, I've survived many times. Going into middle school, I was very privileged in going to a private school, but I also had parents who were not into buying designer clothes or all of the things that most of the other students had. Not that they didn't necessarily have the money, but they just didn't think it made much sense for someone who grew all the time.
I kind of came into my own body very early in life, and so I got bullied a whole lot. It started to trigger a lot of things. Cutting was the first thing that I started doing… Then, yeah, eventually, it would be, "I don't want to go to school so much that I will swallow a whole lot of Tylenol." I don't know whether I thought necessarily that I was trying to kill myself, but I was just really trying to make myself sick [enough to not go] to school.
I think about eighth grade is when I started meeting people online. I'm thirty-four, so this was really early. It was 300 baud modems dialing up into these bulletin boards of local stuff. I met friends and we had a suicide pact... Then she told a friend, and her friend called my parents, and my parents called the school. It became a big deal and that was it for a while.
Then I went to Valley, which is Valley High School, which is regular public high school versus private school. It was like, “Freedom! Woohoo!" All of that stuff. And instead of becoming internally destructive and wanting to kill myself, I was just destructive. That’s where the illness kind of manifested itself at its peak for me, and where drugs and not going to school and stealing came into play. I was actually diagnosed when I was fourteen with being bipolar, but my mom said that she didn't accept the diagnosis because you're bipolar forever. She wanted to hear that I was depressed, because that is temporary, in her mind.
When I went through the ages of fourteen, fifteen, sixteen, and seventeen, I got kicked out of five high schools. I did end up in a mental hospital when I ended up running away from home. I did come back. They caught me and I came back. I did try to kill myself, and they put me back in the hospital. It was shortly after that when I got kicked out of [school]. My parents kicked me out of me house, and then I ended up staying at a good friend's house. I got pregnant, which was probably the best thing that ever happened to me because, after that, I've never touched a drug since March 19th of 1998, which is the day he was conceived. But it's not been easy…
I worked to be a mom, and my best me was when I was a mom, but there are parts of me and there are parts of being bipolar that is kind of like…you're either perfect, or fuck it! You're impulsive and you want it now and you'd have the hyper sexuality, that kind of stuff. I didn't realize that that was any part of a disease at all. So I had these off and on relationships with his father, and I would act like the biggest drama queen in all of Albuquerque…
I decided that we should get married, even though we had broken up, like, ten times since my son had been born. We did get married, and then three months later I was like, "I don't want to get married!" I ran off to Denver—really just literally left town—and when I got to Denver, I had a job, which I lost because of a stupid thing that I did a few years before that. I lost my ID and my best friend drained my bank account and then my grandfather died—all of this in one day—and I was like, "Wow, life hates me!" My roommate was turning towards the best friend who was really pissed at me for leaving. She also slept with my husband, too.
I know the one thing about suicide attempts and being suicidal is [that, in] a very serious way, there is no light at the end of that tunnel at all. My parents were pissed at me. I didn't have anybody to turn to. I was screwed in every way…
That's the worst feeling: when you tried to kill yourself and you wake up the next morning and realize that you're not dead. That's when I realized that I had to call my mom and get help, and finally go see a shrink, and that was when I started to get treatment for being bipolar.
The one thing that I've seen, or noticed, is that I will always think about killing myself. That’s part of being bipolar. I've had five of my friends kill themselves in the last ten years, and so that doesn't make it any easier, especially since I don't have any more friends left. When all of your friends are dead, what can you do with that?
Des: How have people responded when you've attempted or been hospitalized?
Erin: A lot of people don't know… I really went internal on it because I didn't feel—I still don't have the feeling with anybody, now that all of my friends are dead—that there's a safety there. That there's that trust that there’s not someone going, "Oh my god, she feels like shit again. Okay, crazy!" And it sucks.
It sucks a lot, because I wish, with my roommate, I should have known, but I didn't. I didn't have any idea that he was that low, and that's kind of the scary thing to me. We mirrored each other exactly, except I'm on medication. I have been medication faithful for ten years. He used medication to bring himself up, and when he was down, he would use medication and alcohol to make him feel better. So, when he [killed] himself, it was so completely out of the blue that it's like, "Why? Why did he not talk to anybody?" Especially because he knew we've all been there.
I know he didn't want to feel like he was needy, and that seems to be a big problem to me. It seems to me that, even though I know that there's a suicide hotline and all that stuff, what can they do? There's also the fact that I don't want a 5150 called on me, because I know where I'll be taken: I'll end up in an emergency room, and if there's no room in the mental hospital, I'll sit in an emergency room for three days. And that's the big, scary thing.
Des: Something a lot of us talk about is how the system's so fucked up that if we get into it, we get mistreated a lot of the time, and that's if we get into it at all. The police get called on you and you get humiliated and it's like, “Well, what's the answer? Why do these resources exist that are just going to further traumatize us when we're hurting and just need some fucking compassion?”
Erin: Yeah, exactly. There are some amazing programs out there, but they're for people who have money. I cannot tell you how many times I have wished and prayed to God that somebody would send me to Sierra Tucson so I could take time to focus and get back to me, but I don't have $30,000 to spend a month there. I don't. They're all over the place, these nice, private hospitals, and they don't take insurance, so you end up in places like here, where you have one hospital that is co-ed. Patients harassing each other. The techs are being paid nine dollars an hour. There isn't compassion.
You have take-downs when someone starts escalating, then you have a team. I worked at a hospital; that's how I know. A team of six adults come in and take you into a padded room as a take-down, and then you get injected full of whatever they give you at that time—Haldol or whatever—to put you down. But there's no real long-term solution in that, and we're not innovative here.
I believe in looking at DNA, looking at MRIs, seeing traumatic brain injury, all of those things. There are places in Texas where they are really good about that—biofeedback, all of that stuff. There's nothing available to us here. Gene therapy is probably what's going to be the next helpful step in resolving a lot of issues, but New Mexico will likely be one of the last places to pick it up.
Des: The suicide rate here is incredibly high. Why don't people want to talk here?
Erin: It's the stigma of it all… I've had friends and I've had boyfriends who—I take a combination of medications for all the different side effects—when it suits them, it becomes a weapon against you. It's, "Okay, why don't you go pop another pill? Okay, you're crazy. Stop acting like you're crazy, then!" That sort of thing.
I think that, especially when you look at Aurora, every single college shooting, all of this other stuff, you've got this anti-mental illness thing going on. At CNN, they do active shooter drills and people are afraid of people with mental illness. There’s no understanding of what mental illness is, of what depression is, what chronic depression is, what is Asperger's versus autism, all of that. We have such an ignorance.
Our governor, Susana Martinez—hopefully she'll be former—pulled contracts for a huge amount of mental health providers in the state and gave the contracts to an out-of-state company to figure out who should be providing. These were for juvenile offenders, so we all of a sudden have people who had accommodations and were previous offenders who were not going to go back into the system before they were 18—now that's been taken away. So we see, there's a correlation there. And I don't think there's a lot of people here who see mental illness as something that needs its own treatment, as compared to being a felon, really, or being somebody to be nervous around.
Des: Why did you decide to tell me your story?
Erin: Because of a lady, an amazing author who's not a doctor, and she changed my life. Her name is Julie Fast.
Des: What'd she write?
Erin: She's written several things, but the first thing she wrote was called Bipolar Happens! You paid—I don't remember how much I paid, it was really cheap—and you got all the PDFs of her books. One of them was also Getting It Done When You're Depressed. I didn't realize at that point that other people have suicidal ideations all the time too, and that was completely normal. She told me I was normal for what I had, and it was the most amazing [feeling]—I can't even tell you. To become self-aware made me have more control. She talked about triggers and how to go about your life and set up these cards for different triggers, for different situations, and how're you going to handle this? She said, "When you're well, write down things that happen." She's no Ph.D., but she's just someone who is bipolar and she kind of figured things out, and so she wrote about it, and it changed my life. So I thought that maybe if I could say something to somebody and say, "You know what? It's totally normal if you think about [suicide]"
Like, for me, two months ago, I got a letter saying, "Oh, you got into this amazing film school in Atlanta, and you got great scholarships, but you didn't get all of them, so you can't go." And I thought, "Oh God, I want to kill myself." I didn't want to die. I wasn't making the plans, but for that few hours, I sobbed and all that stuff. I let myself process that grief and let myself go, "I just wish I was dead," realizing it was totally normal for me and not to freak out about it. A lot of times before, I'm like, "Oh, I'm really freaking out about wanting to die." Now I'm like, "You know what? It's okay. No need to call the therapist. I don't need to worry people." I know where [the point is for me to worry]. There have been the points where I go, "Screw it!" But because of Julie Fast, I've learned to make rules for myself and just stick to those rules because those rules keep me from getting to a point where I've hit that downward spiral…
I can't even tell you how awesome that was for me, to be like, "You're normal!"
Julie Fast was like, "It took me eight years to finish my degree, but that's what happens." She's like, "I can't work a regular job, but that's normal. If you need to check yourself into a hospital, do it! If you're feeling like you need care, go get care! Take care of the illness first."
Des: When was the last time you attempted?
Erin: It was 2002.
Des: Long time.
Erin: Yeah. Yeah. I mean, there have been serious considerations, but in the end, that was the last. There was a time where after [my friend was murdered], another friend decided to park his ass inside my house. I did have a gun, and he decided to hide it from me, and he stayed in my living room for weeks to make sure that I was okay… I can't even tell him how grateful I am for that, because he definitely saved my life.
Des: What's it like being an attempt survivor and having lost so many friends to suicide? What does that feel like? How much do you identify with it?
Erin: …The first thoughts of suicide [that are noticeable are] when people think that they're a burden. That's the biggest one. That nobody will miss them. That kind of thought. [I saw that] with my roommate. I know that that's what that case was.
There was only two people in this world who I would call my sisters that weren't my sisters, and one of them [died by suicide]. I think her being sick—being bipolar sick and unmedicated, or being up and down medicated—and getting older was really hard for her. She lived this most fantastic, larger-than-life life, though. She lived in London, she went to the university in London, she lived in the flat that Syd and Nancy lived in. She went to India for six months of the year. She lived it, but then she just couldn't deal with life. When she died, this grieving thing was really hard because I felt like I knew she was free. That song "Happy Phantom" by Tori Amos, kind of, was always that.
But when I also think about it, I think about my roommate and his mom. I know he thought he was a burden. I know that he thought that he was a waste of time. I know that he thought that people wouldn't miss him. And I have never seen anybody more destroyed than his mother, at that point. I think that, right there, alone, would hold me back from ever really trying it again, because she did not want to live anymore after that, even though she had two other boys. You're not supposed to bury your own kids, and it was just horrific.
[When we’re suicidal], we're in that mindset where everybody else hates us, nothing matters, that kind of thing. It does. It makes a big difference... There are people who will forever be impacted by that decision. It's very odd that, every different situation, I've identified with it in different ways…
I think the worst thing is where you leave your relationships with people when those events happen and how not to take on guilt from other people's decisions, because that is a decision they make, to try to kill themselves. We make the decision to not listen to logic, because there are people, no matter who you are, there's someone who loves you. And there will always be someone who will listen to you; it's just a matter of finding them. And there always be someone who will be destroyed by you leaving before them.
Des: Do you still have suicidal thoughts?
Des: Do you experience different kinds of suicidal thoughts?
Erin: I think so. For me, it's, “What is a life worth having if there's no quality to it all? If I can't see any light at the end of this tunnel?”
My son is two years from college. I've successfully made him into a 4.6 GPA, football-playing, popular jock—at a public high school, even. So I did that job. It's coming toward an end and I have not done anything for myself. And when things start to go wrong, everything seems to start to go wrong. When you start making plans to try to make your life better and they don't work out, that's when I go, "What the hell am I supposed to do? I might as well just die because there's nothing—if I have to live in my parents' guest room the rest of my life, being dead is better than that." It's dark, but I let myself go there.
[One of my friends], when things inevitably went wrong from this and that, he'd be like, "Okay, you have one day. One day to feel sorry for yourself, and then you get your damn pity party over with and you move on and figure out how you're going to move on from here."
I kind of go by that rule.
Des: Is suicide still an option for you?
Erin: I think I'd be lying if I said no… I always have this Plan B in my head. No matter where I live, I have that plan B…
There are a lot of things in my life that are completely, completely tragic and, actually, very tragic. I don't really have any friends anymore. Dead people are my friends. I go to my friends’ graves to talk to my friends.
But I feel like I have a future. There will be something as long as I keep trying for it.
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 or Trans Lifeline at 877-565-8860 (U.S.) or 877-330-6366 (Canada). If you’d like to talk to a peer, warmline.org contains links to warmlines in every state. If you don't like the phone, check out Lifeline Crisis Chat or Crisis Text Line. If you're not in the U.S., click here for a link to crisis centers around the world.
Thanks to the New Mexico Suicide Prevention Coalition for sponsoring Erin's interview, and to Sarah Fleming for providing the transcription.
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