Kelley Clink is a writer. She was 36 when I interviewed her in Chicago, IL, on September 25, 2015.
I was born in Detroit and grew up outside of the city in a nearby suburb. When I was fifteen years old, my family moved to Tuscaloosa, Alabama. That was in 1994. The internet was little more than America Online. Nobody had an email address. There were no cellphones, no Facebook, nothing. When you moved across the country, that was it. You were done.
Both of my parents are from Detroit originally, so my whole extended family was there. When my parents, my brother, and I moved to Alabama, it did not go well for me. I had a really hard time adjusting. I was really angry at my parents. I was really angry at everyone in Alabama, just for being from Alabama, for not being people I already knew, and for not loving me instantly.
I should backtrack a little bit. It was cool to be alternative in 1994 in the Detroit, Michigan area. It was not cool to be alternative in 1994 in the Tuscaloosa, Alabama area, so I was a weirdo. That made me even more angry. Instead of becoming preppy and like a cheerleader, I decided, “I’m just going to be even more alternative.” That did not endear me to anyone, nor did my constant spouting of atheism or general things that don’t go over well in the south.
It was rough. I did make some friends, and I adjusted eventually, but first, I just completely fell apart. It was kind of a slow decline at the beginning. Those ties you have to the place where you used to live take a long time to completely fall apart.
By the end of the first year, I went back to visit, and my childhood best friend—this girl that I had been friends with ever since I was seven years old—I just didn’t know her anymore. She had all these new friends. She had a new boyfriend. They were hanging out at different places. I felt like a stranger in a life that didn’t belong to me anymore, and that was what kind of pushed me over the edge.
I also got mono, so I was sick and having this kind of existential crisis, and nobody was talking about it. At no point did anyone ever say to me, “Of course you’re upset. Of course you’re pissed off.” No one ever said, “You’re grieving. You made this huge change.”
My parents had recognized that I was not doing well, and I was seeing a therapist, but I don’t remember anyone ever saying, “This is a completely normal and acceptable reaction that you are having.” The message I kept hearing was, “You need to learn how to adapt. You need to learn how to adjust. You need to make the changes.”
I had kind of a break after that visit, and I just didn’t feel right. I thought that there was something in the drugs because I just felt like I was still high all the time. I felt very disconnected. It could have been the pot. It could have been the mono.
My mom took me to a doctor, and he said, “I think your daughter’s depressed.”
I was. I weighed ninety pounds. I wasn’t eating. I slept all the time. I cried all the time. It was just miserable.
They put me on Zoloft first. That did not work out so well for me. I had some heart palpitations, so then they put me on Paxil. I was sixteen.
It had only been out for a couple of years, so this was before all the black box warnings. Almost immediately after I started taking it, I wanted to kill myself. I had not felt like that before. I had felt very depressed, but I certainly hadn’t thought about killing myself. I’d thought about running away or I’d thought about ways to change my circumstances, but I started having suicidal thoughts.
A couple months went by, and it didn’t get better. I was taking the meds and doing everything I was supposed to be doing, and I just kept feeling worse and worse. Then, I didn’t really have a plan. I just kept writing really angsty poetry and lots of journaling about how I wanted to die and how I wished I was dead.
One day after school, my mom and I got into this huge fight. I ran into my bedroom, slammed the door, and flipped over a table. I was trashing my room, and then I went into the bathroom. I looked in the mirror and looked at myself. I was like this hollow shadow of the person that I wanted to be. I kind of had this “fuck this” moment, and I just opened the door, got out all my pills, and took them all.
Then I kind of sat there in my room like, “Alright, let’s do this.” Thankfully, that is a very slow method where, after a few minutes, I calmed down and thought, “Oh my god, what did I do?” I staggered out of my room. I was starting to get really loopy. My mom freaked out. I staggered out of the house into the driveway. I started to vomit and she called 911. I don’t remember even telling her that I had done anything, but I think it was obvious…
I tried to run away. I didn’t want to go in the ambulance. I’m running on the street probably without shoes or anything, staggering around, running and crying. The paramedics kind of picked me up off the street in the middle of the road. I get back into the back of the ambulance and get an IV, and this very nice, very gentle, compassionate paramedic tells me that I’m going to be okay. He was talking to me in this very calm voice. Then I black out.
When I wake up, I’m in the emergency room and they’re trying to get me to drink the charcoal. I did. I drank the charcoal, and they take us back into this little room. My mom is talking on the phone with my psychiatrist and somebody tells me they don’t have room for me there. We have to go to Birmingham, which is about an hour away. They don’t take me in the ambulance or anything. My mom just drives me in our Ford Tempo.
There are a lot of funny things that happened during my suicide attempt. We started driving to Birmingham and I was floating in and out of consciousness in the car. All of a sudden, I was wide awake because I was about to shit my pants. My mom pulled over to Taco Bell. I run into Taco Bell and into the bathroom.
Thankfully, it’s a one person bathroom. I lock the door. I’m having massive diarrhea—all of the charcoal—and then I started throwing up on the toilet. I can’t reach the trashcan. This is just it. I’m shitting. I’m puking. It’s everywhere. It’s black. I mean, it’s black vomit, black diarrhea. Everywhere. I just destroyed this bathroom.
Then I just left. I didn’t know what to do. I just walked out. I walked out and I left that bathroom.
Kelley: Yes. To those poor people in that rest stop in between Tuscaloosa and Birmingham: if you are out there, I am sorry.
I was barely conscious. I could hardly walk. I got back in the car and we drove to the hospital. They took my belt and shoelaces. I was just in this psych ward. I wasn’t being monitored. For whatever reason, they knew that I was out of danger, but I swear, for the rest of the night, I wasn’t sure if I was going to live. I could feel my heart pounding, and I had to keep getting up and shitting a lot. Real glamorous.
I knew I had made a mistake. I didn’t want to be there, and I didn’t want to be dead. I knew I didn’t want to die.
I did my week. I put in my hours. I tried to convince everyone that I’d learned my lesson because that’s what it felt like. It felt like punishment. It felt like I needed to prove to everyone that I was okay. I never got the sense that anyone else felt like they had any responsibility in what happened or that, quite possibly, they might need to be taking care of me.
My parents were obviously completely distraught, but they just didn’t know what to do. They had no idea what to do. Another quick aside: they were thirty-seven years old. They were one year older than I am now. So, I came home and I was grounded for trying to kill myself.
We didn’t really talk about it. I went back to school. My teachers knew. They must have known. Nobody said anything to me. Other kids must have known. Nobody said anything to me, and I just pretended like nothing happened. I did that for years. I got married when I was twenty-one, [and I don’t think my husband knew].
Des: You’re still together? Still like each other?
Des: There’s hope.
Kelley: Fifteen years we’ve been married. It is crazy.
Des: That’s awesome.
Kelley: It is pretty great. I feel very lucky. I know we’re kind of the exception. It’s unusual. But at the time I got married, I was terrified. I didn’t talk about my depression. I was still taking medication. I just wanted to be normal. A suicide attempt felt like something I needed to keep secret and put behind me. It felt shameful. It wasn’t until after my brother died by suicide a few years later, just a few years after I got married, that I started to realize that we had to talk about it.
Not talking about it was what killed him. Not talking about it was killing me. It was holding me back and made me miserable. It was making me even sicker than anything else.
Once I started writing and sharing my story, I started feeling so much better about myself and my life. I started feeling like living well was possible. I stopped feeling like I was a prisoner of my depression, a prisoner of my past. For so long, I felt afraid to tell anybody anytime I felt suicidal because I thought I’d be put in the hospital again. It’s truly a horrible place to be, so I sat on it.
Sometimes I just need to say it out loud, even if I don’t mean it. Even if I’m not going to do it, I need to be able to say, “This is how I feel right now.” [Doing that] got me to a place where I could say, “This feeling like I want to kill myself isn’t necessarily that I want to kill myself. It’s that I want things to change. I want something to be different. It’s that I don’t like how I’m feeling, and I feel like I can’t survive this moment.” That’s really what I’m trying to say. I never had words for it because nobody ever said anything about it. The easiest thing for me to do or think or say was that I wished I was dead.
I’ve worked really hard to try and expand that vocabulary. When my first thought is, “God, I want to kill myself. I wish I was dead,” instead of jerking away from that, I dive straight into it and say, “Okay, why? What do I really want? I know I don’t want to die. What do I really want?”
So much of my brother’s story is kind of wrapped up in my story. Two years after I attempted suicide, my younger brother attempted suicide. He was diagnosed with bipolar disorder not too long after I was diagnosed with depression. He had been using drugs. His experience was so different than mine. He was so quiet. He didn’t act out the way I acted out. He used a lot of drugs, but he didn’t get into trouble the way I got into trouble. I really wanted to believe that what we were going through was the same, because if it was, then he would be okay because I was okay.
I was really angry at him when he attempted the first time. I went to see him in the hospital and I basically was a real bitch. I was kind of like, “How could you do this? You saw what this did when I did it.” I was a real asshole. Not very sympathetic. Not very supportive. Not very compassionate, at all.
I think it’s because I was terrified that it was my fault, that I had started this pendulum that was just going to swing back and forth between the two of us. That’s what happened.
I had another kind of serious episode of depression right before I got married, and that was when I was trying to come off of antidepressants. Nobody knew about withdrawal—I’m sorry, discontinuation syndrome—back then. For anybody who doesn’t know, it’s like fucking heroin withdrawal. It can be. It was for me. I was violently ill. I was scratching myself, and I couldn’t sleep. I slept two hours a night. My parents threatened to put me in the hospital again. It was awful.
Then I got married, and I moved away. My brother went to college, and he moved away. We all wanted to believe he would be fine. For a while he was, but he just kept growing further and further away from us. He kept his private life so private. We didn’t know to ask because we still weren’t talking about it at that point.
I don't know about him, but I know I felt like I needed to keep it together for my parents’ sake. I didn’t want them to worry about me. I wanted to take care of myself in any way that I could so I wouldn’t be a burden to anyone or make anybody scared.
There was so much we didn’t find out about until after he died. He was a senior in college. It was three weeks away from graduation. He was Phi Beta Kappa. He was so smart. He was way smarter than me. I still get mad. He was extremely intelligent, extremely creative, really talented, a fantastic musician, a crusader for social justice. He cared about things.
I don’t really know what happened. I don't know how long he thought about it. He wrote that he thought about suicide since he was nine years old.
In the months leading up to his death, there were some other people in his life that died by suicide: the mother of his childhood best friend, and a man that he worked for the summer before. His girlfriend broke up with him. He had confessed feelings to somebody else, a close friend of his that he was really in love with, and she didn’t feel the same way about him. I think the end of school was coming up, and it was like, “What now? I’m just supposed to live the rest of my life?”
According to toxicology, he was not on any medication at the time of his death, so he had to have been off it for at least a couple of weeks, which he did not tell us about. He did not tell his doctor about it. Nobody knew that he stopped. Then, April 30th, 2004, he signed off instant messenger around midnight, drank a six-pack of beer, and [ended his life]. There were small warning signs, but nothing huge.
One of my first thoughts was, “Great, now I can’t kill myself. Now that’s off the table.” Even though I felt like I didn’t want to [kill myself] after I survived my attempt, it was like a card in the back of my pocket. It was like a security blanket, as weird and morbid as that sounds.
Des: I hear that a lot.
Kelley: Yeah. It was like, “If it gets bad enough, I can always kill myself.” Then it was, “Well, great, now I can’t do that because my parents are fucking destroyed.” Everybody in our family was. It was awful. I was like, “Alright, now I have to keep living.”
For years and years, I blamed myself. I thought, “I started this all. I should have reached out to him. I should have known. I should have…” It just goes on and on. Of course, there are so many different ways it could have played out, but it didn’t. It played out the way it played out.
I’m trying to think of how to describe getting past that. [I don’t know when I got to] that moment where I stopped and said, “It wasn’t just you.” I hit a point where I said, “That’s kind of really egotistical.”
I got a lot of materials after my brother died. All of his writing, his blog, notes from his psychiatrist. When I went through the notes from his psychiatrist, I found his family descriptions and some of the stuff he said about me. He called me a needy, attention grabber. I was like, “Okay, that’s right. I was really bossy and wanted to be center stage all the time.”
I think after I read that, I realized, “I’m trying to make his death all about me. I should probably cut it out.”
For me, that was the beginning of turning it around. He was who he was. I was who I was. My parents were who they were. We were all doing the best we could. He had a lot of stuff going on that he wasn’t sharing with us, and there are things I could have done, but I didn’t know to do them.
Once my grief softened, it was a lot easier to forgive myself, to start letting his death change me. I let my life change and actually got better.
Des: Did your parents ever address the fact that suicide affected both of their children?
Kelley: I mean, I’ve talked to them at length. We talk about it a lot. I don’t think I’ve ever heard from them why they think both of their kids attempted suicide, and one of them [died by suicide]. Most of the talking we’ve done has been me asking them questions and telling them what I think, and that was all in the process of writing my book. I don't know if that’s normal. How much do you share with your kids? I’m sure they must have talked about it with each other. Maybe. I don't know.
When I was younger, it didn’t seem like something that was passed down through our family. When I got older, I looked back and talked with my parents. People weren’t dying by suicide or attempting suicide, but there was a lot of depression. There was a lot of anxiety and disordered eating. There definitely was mental illness—my brother and I just took it up a notch.
Des: Tell me about your book.
Kelley: It’s called A Different Kind of Same. The form my grief took was [to write] a book. I have a background in literature. I have always used writing to process my feelings. I had never done any public kind of writing. It’s always been journaling and really, really terrible poetry. I have two degrees in literature. I was a teacher. I taught writing classes and comp classes. It was kind of fun. The pay was terrible, although it was more than writing a book. So, everybody keep that in mind.
After my brother died, I couldn’t talk about my grief. It felt like this horrible poison that I wanted to keep inside me. I didn’t want to spread it around. I had this idea in my head that I should be handling things a certain way. My parents took their time off work and then they went back to work, like life went on. I felt like I was the only one who was like, “Hold on a minute. Life can’t go on. This is too much.” I quit my job and I just fell apart.
I look back now, and I think “Yes, that was appropriate.” Everybody should be allowed to do that. Have the messiest, ugliest, fuck-your-life-up grief because that’s the reality of it. Thankfully I stopped short of completely fucking my life up. I didn’t ruin my marriage or anything, although a lot of people do.
Because I felt like I couldn’t talk about it and I was the only one who just wasn’t handling it the appropriate way, I started writing about it. That seemed like a safe place for me to write down all of my ugliest, most terrible thoughts without people judging me and without infecting anyone with my grief.
Eventually I got to the point where I was workshopping it at writing workshops, and it was getting good feedback. It was kind of turning into something. I was like, “Oh god, I’m going to have to start sharing this with people I know. I let my parents read the chapters, I let my husband read things, and everybody was really supportive. It was really nerve-wracking and horrible, but also ended up being really healing. It opened the door for all kinds of conversations, [including] conversations with my parents I had never had about the depression and about the suicide attempt.
I don’t think my husband had even known that I’d been hospitalized or that I’d tried to kill myself. I’d never told him. We’d been married for about seven years at that point. He didn’t know until he read it, and then he just kind of looked at me and said, “I never knew that.”
“Oh, I never told you that. Okay.”
I was so terrified that if anyone saw the real me they wouldn’t love me.
It was also an opportunity to sort of untangle myself from my brother’s life. After he died, I was so sure I would kill myself. I didn’t want to, but I thought, “Well, I’m going to. It’s genetic. I’ve already tried once. I’m at a higher risk. Obviously it’s just a matter of time.”
Writing this book really enabled me to see him as a separate person, to see his illness as something separate, and his bipolar disorder completely different than what I went through with my depression. It enabled me to see all the ways in which I want to survive.
Des: Is suicide still an option for you?
Kelley: Right now, today, no.
Des: Since your attempt, do you think there’s been a change in your sense of identity or a shift in your identity, and in what way?
Kelley: It’s been twenty years since my attempt. I would say the bigger shift in change for me probably occurred after my loss than it did after my attempt, but I would say that my loss really informed my attempt. It retroactively changed the way I thought about it, changed the way that I have felt going into the future, if that makes any sense.
After I attempted, I was completely ashamed. I didn’t want anyone to know. I was embarrassed. I wanted to pretend like it never happened. Always in the back of my mind, I felt like it might happen again. It felt like this scary thing that was just waiting for me. That intensified after my brother died. Even more I thought, “Oh god, there’s no hope for me. There’s just no hope.”
As I worked through that grief, it opened the door to being more accepting of my depression, making a decision to live, no matter what, and continuing to work on my health and well-being, no matter what. I looked back on my attempt with compassion. I was able to see how I was grieving the loss of my home. I was grieving the loss of my friends. I was angry. I was afraid. I was feeling all these things that I didn’t have words for. I couldn’t express them. Of course I became overwhelmed. I was taking this medication that has since been shown to be unsafe for children.
I was able to look back at the years where I was afraid, ashamed, and angry, and see myself with a lot of compassion. It’s really given me hope. It’s given me a lot of hope that, even if things become difficult for me and my life again, I know there are amazing things on the other side. I have a husband. I have a son.
How can I say this stuff without being so cheesy? It sounds so Hallmark and ridiculous, but just sitting here at this table, this beautiful day... There’s a fucking hummingbird over here. C’mon! It’s all so beautiful and terrible and wonderful… and it’s all been outlined much more clearly because of everything I’ve been through.
Des: If you could give advice to somebody thinking about suicide, what would it be?
Kelley: Talk about it with somebody who will encourage you to stay alive. My brother talked about it with a lot of people who encouraged him to die. If you don’t get a good response—you might get a shitty response from someone—keep talking. Just keep talking about it until you find somebody who can give the right kind of help.
Des: Talk to me about your son and your stance on telling him about your experiences with suicide.
Kelley: [I wrote an essay] that was supposed to be from the perspective of a loss survivor, and the magazine changed the title. All of a sudden, I was an attempt survivor. I was like, “I guess it’s not like nobody knew that already, but oh my god, this is really public.”
People had a very strong reaction to that, but I feel like my kid has to know from the beginning. This is how my brother died. These are the things that mommy takes pills for and goes to see a therapist for. This is in his genes, and even if he doesn’t have any issues with mental illness himself, there are so many people who experience them. Somebody in his life, outside of the family, is going to [experience them].
I want him to be able to show compassion to people. I want him to be able to support people. If one of his friends comes to him and says, “I’m thinking about killing myself,” I want him to know what to do. I want him to know how to ask for help. I want him to know it’s nothing to be ashamed of. I want him to be able to express his feelings, so that he’ll never be in a place where he feels like suicide is the only option.
Des: Why do you think people had such strong reactions to that?
Kelley: Talking about mental illness can be a touchy subject for some people. They don’t feel like kids are capable of understanding, which cracks me up. My brother said that he started thinking about suicide at nine years old. We need to start talking with children about this. Obviously children experience emotions. I think there’s still a lot of prejudice. People worry incorrectly that they’ll be planting ideas in their child’s head, and studies have proved that that’s not the case.
People want to protect kids. They don’t want them to have to deal with thoughts of suicide or with depression or bipolar disorder, so they hope that by not talking about it, they’re protecting them somehow. Of course, you don’t want your kids to have to deal with that. It’s hard, but life is hard and they’re going to deal with shit. It’s going to happen. All kinds of horrible things are going to happen to your kids. You should probably talk about it now.
Des: How do you think you’ll know when it’s time? How much do you reveal?
Kelley: I’ve done some research on this. Experts say that it’s situational. If somebody in your family is having an acute episode, you need to talk about it, age appropriately, to your kids. There are lots of guidelines on the internet about how to do that and what to say. A really good time is when they start asking questions.
If you’re not sure how to answer them, you can say, “I need some time to think about that.” That’s a big one. I’m always one to want to hurry up and rush it. It’s important to remember you don’t have to have all the answers. You don’t have to have them right up front. You can say you need time. You can give as much information as you’re comfortable giving.
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.
Kelley'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 Alison Rutledge for providing the transcription to Kelley's interview, and to Sara Wilcox for editing.
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