Keris Myrick is the CEO of a peer-run organization and president of the NAMI (National Alliance on Mental Illness) National Board of Directors. She was featured in the New York Times for her strategy of using a busy schedule to combat the schizoaffective and obsessive-compulsive disorders she lives with. She was 52 or 53 (she says she stopped counting at 50) when I interviewed her in Los Angeles, CA, on April 11, 2014.
I’m an Army brat. My dad was in the military. I was born overseas and we traveled. Every three years, we lived someplace different. We lived overseas a couple of times and then various places in the U.S. My father’s a Vietnam War veteran so there was a year or two, I recall, where my father was away and that was a really hard time. All of this in context of always being an outsider, just looking at me, seeing I’m a person of color, and I was born in Bremerhaven, Germany, where it’s like, ‘Oh, well that’s interesting. The baby came out with all this hair.’ In German, they kept telling my mom I was gonna lose all this hair.
My mom was like, “What are you talking about? No, she’s not.”
They were like, “Yes, babies, they lose all their hair.”
I had all this hair and, I'm African-American and I’m part Native American—you don’t lose your hair as a baby. You keep your hair. But they were German and that’s not their experience. So, from birth, there was always something different and people would define me based on the overarching culture, and I was different from that overarching culture. And different didn’t mean good all the time, so trying to understand and love myself and be comfortable with myself, trying to have a lot of self-confidence, was really, really hard because there were always a lot of stereotypes about what people expected of a black person or a student.
My mom and dad would say, "You have to sit in the front of the classroom. You have to be better than. You can’t just be 100 percent. You have to be better than."
And I don’t blame them for that at all. I think that was a way of them making sure that I wasn’t taken advantage of—both my brother and I, as kids—and helping us to have self-esteem and feel comfortable with who we are. But inevitably, it just always made me feel very different—and again, this idea that different wasn’t good.
I think the first time I started having some real problems was around the age of 8. That’s right around the time that my dad was getting ready to be deployed to Vietnam, and we were living on an Army base, which was rare for us. We always lived in the community. We didn’t really live on Army bases all the time, and when we lived on the Army base, there were a lot of people who were being deployed. It was Army culture, military culture. I was about 7 or 8 when I saw a kid from my class hang himself on the jungle gym.
None of us knew what to do and I just remember running to the teacher and saying, “There’s snot on his nose.” That’s all I kept saying, "There's snot running down his nose. He’s not right. Is there something the matter?"
When they came out, they kind of ushered us off and then tried to take care of the little boy. Nobody talked to us about it. Nobody explained what he had done or why he had done what he had done.
It was just sort of this, 'Yeah, shuffle them off and let’s pretend like it didn’t happen, and then we’re just gonna go back to life just the way it was before.' We kept playing on the same jungle gym. I didn’t play on that thing because I knew that what I had seen. It’s not supposed to happen.
When you live on base, they play “Taps” in the morning and in the evening, and if you’re an officer (if you’re anybody, but especially if you’re an officer), you have to stop what you’re doing and salute. So we were driving home—I guess it was 5 o’clock or sundown—they were playing “Taps,” and somewhere on base they were lowering the American flag. He got out of the car and he saluted. He got back in the car and he kind of turned around.
We were in the backseat, my brother and I, and he said, “I’m going to Vietnam.” And then he turned around and just drove off. Just kind of drove home.
It was just kind of like, ‘Wait, what? That’s it?’
Nobody said anything, and I was afraid to look at my dad, look at my mom, look at my brother.
I was thinking, ‘Okay, he just said it, like, "Oh, we’re going to the grocery store," or, "Oh, you know, I’m going to work and I’ll be back later," or something.'
He just said it like that, but I knew what it meant. I’d seen the pictures and the television. It wasn’t live like it is today, but you could still see the ravages of war. All I remember was that we moved to Texas. We went to Chinese language school to learn Chinese, ‘cause my dad did propaganda work. The next thing I knew, he was in Vietnam. That’s all I know. I don’t know how he got there. I don’t know if we drove him to the airport. I don’t remember any of it. There are several years of my life when that happened that are somewhat missing. The only thing that I can really, really recall is he sent home a postcard, which he did all the time. He sent postcards. They used to record messages home on these little 75 RPM records, and they were mainly for my mom. We could listen to parts of them, but mainly they were really for my mom.
All we heard was, “Kids, I miss you,” but one time he sent this postcard home and it was right after Christmas.
It was of a Santa with all of these little Vietnamese kids, and I knew that a lot of these kids were adopted and stuff. He kept saying it was a magical postcard.
I thought, ‘Oh yeah, it’s magical because maybe this is the first time they’ve seen Santa Claus and these are kids who maybe don’t have parents because they lost parents in the war.'
I kept looking at the pictures and I was like, ‘Oh, it’s magical ‘cause he’s black.’
There was a black Santa in this really crappy ass outfit. His beard was all dirty and I was really obsessing about the details of the picture.
Then I said, “Wait, wait, something’s not right here.”
I looked closer. It was my dad, so my dad was the Santa. First of all, he was really thin, so even though he was wearing this suit, it was all wrong. All of a sudden, I got mad. I got really mad.
I was like, “Wait, that’s my dad. I don’t give a shit what’s going on. That’s my dad."
I didn’t understand how he could be there with all those children and leave us at home, and so I took a no. 2 pencil and I erased his face off of the picture. I got in so much shit. I got in so much trouble. My mother didn’t understand it. She just scolded me for erasing his face off the picture.
All this to say, there were all these different things that happened that I never had language for and I never had words for. When he came back, I didn’t talk to him until I was 18. Even though we were in the same house, and we had a very loving, very close family, I never talked to him.
It was very like, “Yeah, okay dad. Yeah, sure, whatever. Yeah, I’m okay. Yeah, okay, whatever.”
One day, he went off on me about it and that’s when I realized, 'Wow, I have all this stuff.'
As we talked about some of the stuff, we realized that when I was 5 and going to kindergarten, I was the only black kid in kindergarten. We were in Germany. In Germany, you learn to speak German and we did everything with the Germans. My dad wanted us to be part of the culture—not live there as Americans, but live there as part of the community. There was a teacher who was abusing me. My mom had to go to the hospital. And the teacher was physically abusing me. I don’t even remember this. My mom had to tell me. She caught the teacher eventually. Even to this day, I have certain fears about being late. The teacher kept saying that I was late to school.
My mother said, “But she doesn’t know how to tell time. She’s 5.”
There weren’t digital watches then. You had to learn how to tell time. So there was all this stuff and I didn’t have words for this stuff. Nobody understood this stuff. I didn’t talk about this stuff, and I don’t think people—my parents or my family or teachers or anybody—understood how those experiences are not normal. And for children, no matter how much resilience you have, those are very, very extreme and they affect you deeply.
So I was affected deeply and always thought to myself, ‘I’m not gonna live to 16. I’m not gonna live to 18. I’m not gonna live ‘til 21. I’m not gonna live ‘til 22.’
It was always in my head that life wasn’t worth living. It was just too freaking painful. And I never tried anything, but I just had the ‘life is too painful’ thoughts.
Finally, when I did attempt for the first time, my therapist thought something was going on and he suspected.
I kept telling him, “Take my dog. I have a dog. Take my dog.”
And he kept saying things like, “Why are you trying to give away your good stuff?"
I didn’t care about anything else. I just didn’t want my dog to be alone.
I said, “I don’t want the dog to be alone. You have kids. Take the dog. They’ll like the dog. The dog’s kind of a pain in the ass. I don’t want the dog.”
He was like, “No, no, you want the dog.”
I was like, “No, I don’t want the damn dog. Take the fucking dog. Take the dog!"
He called the police to come and check on me and the gas was going, and I don’t really like to talk about that kind of stuff.
When the police came, it wasn’t like, "Knock, knock. Hi. Hello. Are you okay in there? Everything okay?"
It was very aggressive. They came. They were very aggressive. I lived in an apartment building with maybe thirty other apartments. It was very small. Even though I didn’t really know my neighbors, we all kind of knew what the others looked like, and I was the only one who looked like me that lived in the apartment building.
And here come the police and they were rapping on my door, “Police! Police!”
I was thinking, ‘What is that? They’re kind of interrupting my thing. I got a thing going on right here, right now. What are they doing here?’
They just kept making it louder and I thought, ‘Now it’s embarrassing.’
So I was like, ‘Okay, I’m trying to kill myself here and I’ve got this embarrassing situation with the police going on over here.’
I ran to the door and I opened the door—and I’ll never forget this—I opened the door and I said, “Get in here. Get in here right now.”
They were like, “What? What? What just happened?” They came in and shut the door
I said, “Why are you yelling? You can’t be standing outside of my door yelling like that.”
They said, “Do we smell gas?” Then they kind of took care of everything and they said, “Are you okay?”
I said, “I’m fine. I was kind of taking care of some shit right here and you guys are all up in my space.”
They said, “Well, we got a call from your doctor that everything’s not okay. Is everything okay?”
I don’t remember all the details of all of that, but basically, they said I needed to go to the hospital with them. I didn’t want to go.
I said, “If I’ve gotta go, let me pack some pajamas or some clothes or something.”
They said, “Oh, you can get that later.”
I was like, “Alright, so you’re gonna take me and then we’re gonna come back."
I don’t know how I thought I was gonna get back and get my clothes, but they kept saying, “No, you can get that later.”
So I said okay. When we went out to go to the hospital, they asked me to turn around so they could handcuff me.
I didn’t understand that either, and I said, “What do you mean, handcuff me?”
They said, “Well, we have to handcuff you.”
I said, “I can’t walk out of here handcuffed. By the way, I didn’t do anything wrong. What did I do wrong? Did I commit a crime? What did I do wrong? I don’t understand. Why are you handcuffing me?”
They said, “Well, by law, we have to handcuff you.”
The whole process was very degrading and humiliating. I begged them. Out of everything that had happened that day, I was like, “I can’t walk out of here handcuffed. Can’t you handcuff me in front and put something over?”
They said, “No, we have to handcuff you in back.”
And they handcuffed me in back. They walked me out. Thank god, I don’t think anybody was looking. They walked me out. We had to stop by the police station. I had to see some young black kid being put in four-point restraints on a table because he had stole his grandfather’s gun.
I kept thinking, ‘What did I do wrong? Am I a criminal?’
I kept asking, "Am I a criminal? What did I do wrong?"
Eventually, they finally got me over to the hospital. When we got to the hospital, they had to drop their guns off in this gun thing. It was just really disconcerting. So they had to drop their guns, handguns, which I didn’t even notice.
It was the wrong hospital, and I kept telling them, “Oh, you’ve got me at the wrong hospital now.” I kept saying, “I think I’m at the wrong hospital. I’m supposed to be at blah, blah, blah hospital.”
They said, “No, we have to start here.”
So I thought, 'I need to shut up.'
I didn’t know anything about psych hospitals. All I knew was, ‘Shut up because you’ve seen what happens in the movies.’
So I didn’t say anything and then they came back and the nurse asked me if she could take my temperature. I thought if she took my temperature, it mean that I would have to stay there. Like, it would open a chart, it would open a file. So I said no, and I also didn’t understand why, if I was there for trying to kill myself, what the hell my temperature have to do with anything. It didn’t make any sense. So then I said no.
And then I did this: “No, thank you.”
I was like Little Miss Sweetie Pie, saying, “No, thank you.”
She goes, “Oh, it’s gonna be like that, is it?”
And I was like, 'Okay, wait a minute, what?'
She walked away and I thought, 'Okay, good, she’s gone.'
The next thing I knew, four burly guys came up and it was a takedown, because as soon as I saw them coming at me, human nature said, “Protect yourself.”
I said, “No, you’re not touching me.”
And then they tussled around on the ground and they said, “Take her shoes because she’s gonna kick us with these shoes. She’s kicking. She’s kicking. Take her shoes.” They ripped these shoes off me, and I wasn’t able to wear these shoes for about five years after that happened. Couldn’t stand the sight of them. They were my favorite shoes, but I couldn’t stand the sight of them.
They took my shoes off and gave me a shot, five-point restrained me to a bed, forgot about me. I had to go to the bathroom. I’m really lucky I can hold it for a really, really, really long time.
Finally, when the doctor came in, he said, “Are you calm now?”
I said, “I was calm from the very beginning. I was calm all along. I would have been better off had you guys just left me to do what I was gonna do. This is worse. This is worse.”
I’ve had several unfortunate experiences like that. I don’t go to the hospital easily. I guess I thought, 'If that’s what it’s like, that’s what it’s always like, whether you walk in on your own or somebody else walks you in.'
I think the bigger issue is that the feelings never went away, that I was never really able to talk about them. I never really trusted anybody. I had a very good therapist, but I had the hardest time telling him my deepest, darkest. It was just too painful.
Once we would get to that certain level, it was like, 'okay, but the 45 minutes is gonna end and then I have to go home and live with this,' and I couldn’t live with it. So I figured, why bring it to the surface? Keep it suppressed.
That's how I lived most of my life until finally, my therapist and I were playing Chutes and Ladders. He was a child psychologist. What can I say? I noticed all these games, and so I asked him one day, ‘cause I wasn’t talking, I asked him if we could play Chutes and Ladders. I had never played it before.
He said, "Sure," and so he taught me how to play and we sat on the floor.
They have the little cardboard pieces.
He got ready to take a little boy piece and I said, “No, take the girl piece.”
I made him take the black girl piece and I took the white boy piece. In that way, every time the girl did something, I was able to talk about what the girl did on the game board. I was able to tell the story that way. Every time she would do something, I would say it was either crappy or she’s not good enough, or “No, that’s not how it works in society. See? I’m gonna roll the higher number because I rule."
I was the little white boy kind of moving around. That’s how we began to untangle a little bit of what was going on, by game play and me being able to talk through the game, so it didn’t have to be me. I could put it on the game. I don’t know how to explain that. That’s the best way I can explain it.
Over time, I think it’s gotten better. I have a psychiatrist who’s now my therapist, as well. It’s very rare that a psychiatrist will do therapy, but he does, and I think he’s quite good. Now I’m able to talk a little bit easier without the games and stuff. I mean, not the games but the game boards and things like that.
He finally said that I have this...I want to say "habit," but I don’t know if that’s the right word…but when things get really stressful or overwhelming for me, I beat myself up mercilessly.
I think, 'I’m not good enough. I fucked up. Why the hell am I on this earth? It’s so stupid to make me struggle like this, and I’m never gonna be good enough.'
I habitually go to, ‘I need to end my life.’
Maybe for the past ten years or so, that was an everyday battle, an everyday battle of trying to get up and know that I had something to live for. That's the cool thing about my little dog, Steinbeck. I have to get up and I have to walk him. I have to play with him. He makes me laugh. He’s the most hilarious dog on the face of the earth. He’s cuddly. He likes to sit in my lap. He’s a lapdog.
Once, I got in a car accident and I had to go to the hospital. They pulled the records and saw that I had [attempted suicide] before. They immediately had someone come and assess me to see if I had [attempted] suicide. I said that I hadn't, that these people ran into me in a corner. The police said they couldn’t figure out who was at fault, so it was a no-fault accident. At the end of the day, I ended up in an involuntary commitment in a psych hospital because they used my past experience [against me], even though I said that's not what was going on. I was on my way to school, why would I [attempt] suicide on my way to school?
I was like, “No, I was going to school. Going for a meeting at school. People were expecting me.”
If I have a commitment and people are expecting me to be somewhere, I’ll put my suicide on hold. Have always done it. That’s why I always keep busy. So if I keep busy, I have to be at work, I have to do this obligation, I have to do a speaking engagement, I have to be at a conference, I have to be at a board meeting, I have to do whatever, I don’t have time for suicide. I don’t have time to take my own life because other people are depending on me. I know that sounds really weird, that it should be me depending upon me. I feel like I should learn how to just do it myself, but this is the way that it works. I just keep busy. I keep commitments.
I’m like, ‘Nope, can’t do that today. Gotta be here.’
It doesn’t happen these days as much, maybe for the last three or four years but, if I wake up and I have that feeling of doom and dread, I’ll look at my calendar and go, “Oh shit, can’t do it today. Got that meeting. Let’s see. Got this going on. How’s tomorrow looking? Well, I wonder if I can move that.”
I’m just sitting there, trying to figure out where I can schedule it in. I don’t schedule it in, so that’s my plan. My plan is just to keep busy. My plan is not to have that kind of plan but to have another kind of plan, so I just keep busy and make my work worthwhile.
My first therapist would tell me—which was very helpful, I don’t understand why—he would say, “I’ll hold the hope for you.”
I was like, “Okay, that’s nice. You do that. I don’t know what the hell that means. You just hold that hope for me. I’ll be over here killing myself. Have a good time with that hope. You’ll be holding it, I’ll be dead. It’s all good, it’s all good."
Then I'd be in the act of, and I would hear his voice saying, “I’m holding the hope, I’m holding the hope.”
Then I'd think, ‘I don’t know what that means, but it must mean something important for me to try to see if I can put this off for another hour, another two hours, another day, another whatever.’
It was something that resonated, I don’t know why.
And my mother told me—eventually, when I told her what was going on—she told me about the day I was born, how much she wanted a daughter and how, when I came out, it was a little girl.
She just broke into tears, and she said, “That’s what it’s all about. You’re supposed to be here. You’re my little girl, and I wished you into this world.” So she could be the only person who could wish me out. So whenever I [start feeling that way], I try to think of my mom telling me the story of the day that I was born.
If you’re feeling suicidal, please talk to somebody. You can reach the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255. 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.
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