Jen Karner is an aspiring writer and works in retail management in Glen Burnie, MD. She was 26 when I interviewed her in Washington, DC, on June 22, 2013.
When I was 17, which will be 9 years this September, I tried to kill myself. I started having issues with depression right after I hit puberty, so, 13-14, and my parents got split up when I was 15, so my dad wasn’t really around to be the guy who would notice what was going on. My mom really had her hands full with going back to school and then starting her nursing career with two teenage daughters.
When I was younger, I had figured out these coping mechanisms, because I was also a cutter and a self-injurer of various kinds. One of those coping mechanisms was, every time those feelings would start to crop up, I would try to remove myself from the situation. I would call a friend, or I would find somebody online, or I would go outside for a walk or what have you.
Then, when I was 17, one of my first girlfriends and I broke up and then two weeks after that, my house was broken into. My computer was stolen, my TV was stolen, my game systems were stolen. Everything that I used as a distraction from everything else that was going on—I came home from school one day and it was all gone. That sort of spiraled me even worse into what was going on at the time, and then I got to a night where the depression [got] really bad.
It’s kind of like there’s this other thing that lives inside of my skin and I can feel it and it’s like my skin is too tight to contain all of me anymore. It makes me really, really twitchy.
So, at the time, I tried all of my regular coping mechanisms. I tried to write and I tried to read a book. I called, like, 30 different people and nobody was home on [that] particular night. And then I [attempted suicide].
I got really lucky in that I had sent out a last email letter saying goodbye to a lot of my friends and one of them got it almost immediately and called 911, and then they called me, and they kept me on the phone until the police got there. I was moved into the psychiatric unit of the hospital, and then I was in there in the psych unit, in the ER for a few days, and then I spent a week at Calvert County Memorial Hospital in their juvenile psych unit, which is an amazing unit, by the way. Fantastic staff. Everybody was freaking fantastic.
At the time, they wanted me to come back for outpatient counseling through the hospital, but we didn’t have the money to do it ‘cause my mom was, again, raising two teenage girls by herself, more or less. I was in therapy for a little while. They put me on medication for a little while. For about three months maybe I was in therapy and then we dropped me out of it and pulled me off of the meds and all of that good stuff.
I mean, for me, it was really worse after the attempt than it ever was before, because every day I had to wake up and realize that it hadn’t worked and I was still here, but on top of that, every day I still wanted to do that. I still wanted to just tap out and not be here anymore, but I had my friend’s voice in my ear crying that night. I had my parents watching everything I did. I had all of that. I mean, I went—it got so much worse after the attempt. I got a lot worse with the cutting. I wound up in an abusive relationship for eight and a half months, all of that kind of stuff.
It was a year and a half, almost two years later, before I was even kind of okay again. I ended up dropping out of high school because I was so depressed that trying to get out of bed in the morning was too difficult for me. Then I got really lucky and I started doing this thing… I started LARPing (Live Action Role Play). I know, it sounds so ridiculous. I got really lucky and I met this awesome group of people who were all also kind of damaged. They kind of helped me pull myself back together and start getting my shit together and moving on and being my support system and [they're] pretty much the most amazing people I’ve ever gotten the chance to be associated with.
But I mean, I’m still not on medication. Hopefully, I’ll be in therapy again soon if I can afford it. That’s the problem, trying to afford therapy.
For the most part, my disease is under control at this point, but I’m not thriving. I went through a really bad period last year where I got suicidal again. And I got lucky ‘cause I had that support system and they—a good deal of them—I’ve got one friend who had a very close friend [die by] suicide several years before he met me, so he’s really good about the warning signs and keeping on top of me and all of that kind of stuff. I had been so depressed for so long that it just felt like there was nothing left anywhere and it didn’t matter. And I didn’t see an end to it because, for almost as long as I could remember, it had always been there with me. I sort of refer to my depression as my shadow, and the less you think about it, the less it’s there, but the minute you start thinking about it, it will just try to eat you alive. So that’s always fun, you know, in a completely non-fun sort of way.
I really think it’s just about learning to accept who you are. The way I think of it is that I’m never necessarily going to free of my depression unless I’m on medication and, even then, there’s no magic pill that’s going to cure me and everything’s gonna be okay. But at the same time, I feel like it’s made me more empathetic towards other people. I don’t necessarily have to have a personal tie to a person or a movement to understand why it matters, and it’s because I can look at something out of someone else’s eyes. I feel like without the depression, without the constant grinding pain that I lived through for so many years, that, ‘Am I gonna get out of bed today? Am I gonna take a shower today? Am I gonna eat today?’ All of that sort of makes you—at least it made me—look at things through a different light because it wasn’t just me and I knew that.
I think it got exacerbated after the hospital because I went to so much a darker place. My recovery from the attempt was so much worse than the time leading up to the attempt. I went to a far darker place and it’s because when I went to that place, attempting again was not an option, so I had to do anything else I could to hurt myself, which is how I wound up in an abusive relationship and it’s how I wound up cutting more and it’s all of that sort of thing. I lived in College Park and it was… so, it’s been 5 years since I’ve cut, which is pretty awesome, and part of the way I do that is I wrangle some of my best friends into scaring the shit out of me.
I look at them and I go, “So I need you to do me this favor, okay? I need you to promise me that if you ever find out I’m cutting myself again, you will beat me within an inch of my life.”
And that’s sort of the way I deal with it, which is sort of a weird thing, but it’s my way of looking at them, being like, 'I do stupid shit sometimes when I’m crazy and I need you to help me not do that anymore. So if this is the threat that I need to get out of bed and get dressed and go to work in the morning then I’m gonna need you to back that up for me.'
Thankfully, I have a couple friends who probably would never actually do it but they make me think they would. That’s one of the many coping mechanisms I’ve come up with over the years. There’s so many of them. They’re just all over the darn place and I think that’s because of how young I was when I started to get depressed, that for so many years I didn’t have any outlet of any kind and it was sort of before we had communities online like Facebook or Tumblr, ‘cause Tumblr is kind of my happy place these days. You didn’t really have that community of other people who were willing to speak up and be like, “Yeah, I’m depressed and I don’t go outside and it’s hard for me to get out of bed in the morning too.”
I was teased and bullied growing up. I was in a car accident. Let’s see, I’m 26, so 7 years ago that left another man dead, so that always weighs on me too. It seems like, for a couple of years there, it was literally just one thing after another and every time I tried to drag myself out of that hole, I just got sucked back down again until I realized there was somebody reaching down and I could grab their hand. They weren’t going to do the work for me, but they’d walk through the darkness with me, which was a really big turning point. It was the point when I realized that these people understood what I was going through and they’d look at me and be like, "I’m not gonna tell you I know how you feel. I know how I’d feel in that situation, but I don’t know how you feel, but I can tell you I’m not gonna let you go through it alone. I can tell you that I can tell you’re really depressed, so I’m gonna drag you out and we’re gonna go see a movie, and then we’re gonna go to Double T Diner, and you’re gonna like it, ‘cause I said so..."
Sometimes I’ll go months where it’s… a couple of times I’ve even gone a couple of years without a depressive episode, and then I get cocky and I think that it’s gone and then it’s right there like, ‘Hey, buddy, how you been? We need to talk.’
It's like, 'Oh no, you’re back. Go away. I thought we dealt with this. I don’t want to talk to you anymore.'
Des: You said that you feel like you have more empathy because of what you’ve been through. What do you think of people who say that they don’t understand suicide, like, "Why would you do that? That’s so selfish," you know, the usual.
Jen: I have a couple of friends who have, years ago now, who had that thought process that it’s the coward’s way out, or it’s easy, or any of that, and I think part of it is they’ve just never dealt with what it’s like to live with depression, because it’s really easy if you’re a depressed for a few days or a few weeks, but then that few weeks turns into a few months, and then that few months turns into a few years. And then you don’t really remember what it was like to smile at the little stuff, or to look up and see the moon and just be amazed by it, because everything sort of falls into this monochrome—shades of gray, nothing matters, I don’t matter, you don’t matter—sort of fugue.
I feel like you can’t really understand depression and what it does to a person unless you’ve walked through that valley yourself. You can’t understand the terrible, horrific things your mind will tell you in that situation, that your friends are really lying to you and they don’t really want anything to do with you, that they’re not answering the phone because they know it’s you and they don’t want to deal with your crap anymore. I think that’s part of it but it’s also that a lot of people find it hard to empathize with something that they have no personal connection to. Unless they know someone who has attempted or [died by suicide], unless they know someone who’s lived with chronic depression or chronic illness of any kind, really. You don’t understand how it weighs your spirit down because it’s not even your body anymore. It’s all of the other stuff that matters that sort of just gets mired down in the muck.
I also think it’s an extremely easy statement to say that it’s the coward’s way out. Yes, on one hand I understand where they’re coming from, because if you [die by suicide], then that’s it. There is no waking up tomorrow. There’s no fighting past that disease and there’s no kicking it in the balls and telling it that you won. On the other hand, to sit down and realize what you’re about to do, to sit down and lay out what you’re going to end your life with is such a sobering moment that it’s kind of like with anything else, where you always have that choice... but it’s never an easy choice. I think it’s arrogant and it does no one any good to think that way.
The way I think of people who’ve been depressed long-term is sort of like a late stage cancer patient, because it’s sort of like their soul has died. When you get towards the end of that road, it’s really hard to see the light at the end of the tunnel, but it’s really easy to see that emergency exit. And if you don’t think there’s a light at the end of the tunnel, if you think the tunnel caved in on you years ago and you’ve just lost your mind and you’re wandering in circles, then there’s no point to finding the light. I think that’s why it’s so important that we be empathetic towards people who are sick or dealing with whatever it is that life has seen fit to throw their way. My curve ball was depression, but I’ve got friends whose curve balls are fibro or PTSD...
People who believe that get so caught up in what they see that, if they don’t see it coming, then [the person who died by suicide was] a coward because they didn’t say anything, when it can be one of the hardest things in the world just to reach out to anyone and look at them and go, "I’m in the worst place imaginable and I’ve thought about killing myself."
Even when you do that, you tend to get really mixed emotions from people, which is why people don’t tend to tell the people around them. You get anger or, “Well, you wouldn’t do that,” or, “Well, don’t joke about that.”
It’s very rare that you get somebody who looks at you and goes, “What do you need? How can I help you?” which is, I think, indicative of part of the problem that surrounds it: we don’t talk about it. It’s this thing that happens and everybody knows it happens.
So many people know about the statistics, but nobody’s stepping up to go, “Well, why don’t we talk to these people? Why don’t we figure out why?” And you see dozens of support groups for the families of people who have attempted and [died by suicide], but it’s very rare that you see that same sort of thing for [attempt survivors], which is entirely difficult. I think part of the reason I had so many issues getting back to square one after my attempt was that I had people who were sort of with me for a few months and then it turned into, “Well, you really need to get over this and move on with your life.”
Des: Would you say that suicide is still an option for you?
Jen: Today I wouldn’t, but I don’t know how I’ll feel about that in six months or a year. The important thing to remember with depression is that it’s not a battle. It’s a war, and it goes on forever. You can win one battle but you can’t get cocky because it’ll just come up and crack you upside the back of the head with a cricket bat and then you’re out for the count for another year again.
I got really depressed last winter right after my 25th birthday. My seasonal [ed. note: Seasonal Affective Disorder] hit me harder than it has since I was a teenager and I was intangibly suicidal, if that makes any sense. I was considering the option but I never got to a point where I was planning or making decisions about that.
...I was still together enough to reach out to my friends and be like, "Look, we have a problem, ‘cause you know that thing I’m not supposed to think about? Yeah, I’ve been thinking about that again. We should probably deal with this."
A really, really close friend of mine reached out and was basically my crutch every time I had a bad day where my brain was like, ‘Nobody likes you, you’re never gonna succeed at anything, you’re never gonna finish school, you’re never gonna finish a book, you’re never gonna get a writing gig anywhere, everybody just tolerates you ‘cause you’re pretty.’ My brain really is just… he really needs his own therapy is the problem.
I’d like to say no, but at the same time I know that, just because it’s no today doesn’t mean it’ll always be no. I just have to remember that it’s a battle every time that it comes up and that, thankfully, I’ve got a lot of really good allies on my side who are willing to whoop an intangible theory’s ass. Even last winter, I’d considered it, but it was very much in that—the way I consider it is like the early stages of it, where you’re like, ‘Okay, well, what would things be like if I was gone? How would people deal with it? How long would they mourn? Would they get over it in six months or a year? Does that make it more or less worth it? What about all the things I would never do, the people I would never meet, the things I’d never get to say, the movements I could never be a part of?'
One of the ways, amusingly enough, that I figured out how to deal with my brain doing that is, every time my brain’s like, ‘Yeah, you know, you’re 26 and you still haven’t written a book. Glad to see you’re on that,’ I’m forced to have arguments with my brain where I look at him and go, ‘Look, okay, Stan Lee didn’t make his first character ‘til 40, so I’ve got at least that long,' and I sort of have to trick myself or make little games with myself. Like, 'If I get to this, then I can have this as reward. If I can get up before noon, get a shower, get dressed and run these three errands, then obviously you’re wrong and I’m not as depressed as you say I am.' A lot of my life is made up of defense mechanisms and coping mechanisms and learning how to navigate around my disease, rather than letting it take control of the car and run us off the road.
If you’re feeling suicidal, please talk to somebody. You can reach the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255. If you're not in the U.S., click here for a link to crisis centers around the world.