Kristy Billingslea lives in Sanford, Maine. She was 25 and a teacher at a private school when I interviewed her in Boston, Massachusetts, on April 5, 2014.
My story goes back all the way to when I was a kid. I have thought about death and dying for as long as I can remember. I remember being little and laying in my bed at night, thinking about dying. As I grew up, it progressed more and more, the thoughts about it.
I ignored it until I was a teenager, and when I was a teenager, I thought I was just going through what normal teenagers do. I think, to a big extent, I was. But it progressed to me looking for ways to hurt myself, and I did... It felt like a good release for me.
The first time I was hospitalized was when I was sixteen. I told my mom I wanted to kill myself, and I had cut myself pretty badly, and she brought me to the hospital. It was all very routine, the way they handled it.
It was like I was just a number on a chart, like, "Send you to this room and this room and, yes, we're going to guard you outside this prison cell room we put you in, and..." They made it seem very unimportant, and said, "Okay, you need to start seeing a psychiatrist, you need to start taking medication, and you need to get back to your life and go to school tomorrow."
It was, the next day, like nothing ever happened, and from there, I did start medication. I started psychiatry. I hated every minute of it from there, because a lot of it didn't help me. I did psychiatry or therapy for seven years and, rather than dealing with deep issues that I had in my life and abuse that I had been through, it was all very on the surface, like what I did that week. Sometimes it dealt with some issues, and I learned to deal with myself a little bit better, but it grew kind of stale.
I had been through so many different medications by the time I was in my late teens, early twenties, that I was starting to get sick of it, in addition to developing other health problems. I have a lot of health problems, and those required other medications, and I had stacks on stacks on stacks of medications.
I started to get really frustrated and really angry that I couldn't figure out how to fix myself. My life became very circled around how to feel better emotionally, physically, and how to just keep smiling every day and act like everything was fine, and I did for a while. Until, finally I just didn't want to do it anymore. 'Cause it didn't feel like all my efforts were for anything.
I have incredibly good people in my life, and they helped me through a lot, but up until the point where I tried to kill myself, I went through a period of being really angry and frustrated, and my thinking was very irrational. I'd get angry over very, very minor things. I'd get upset and cry over very, very minor things.
Around that same time, I started working a job where I had to be to work very early in the morning. I had to be up at 3:30 to get there by 4:30, so my sleep was just terrible. Around that same time I also started developing really vivid nightmares every night.
So, I was not sleeping, I was not dealing with anything, and I was going to work every day and living my life, trying to just be cool and smile at my customers and go out with my friends, and that was taking all my energy. All of it.
One day, I just compulsively slipped and decided I just wanted to really, really hurt myself. And I did. Afterwards, I realized it was incredible that I lived, 'cause I shouldn't have. I was surrounded by a lot of people who really loved me and cared about me, and from there, I just knew that a lot of things had to change. And they did. But building from that, still, it's gotten easier, but it'll never be easy.
Des: What happened afterward? You said you had people who were supportive. Were you hospitalized again?
Kristy: I was hospitalized for about a week. I felt like I did not want to be because, like I said, when I was a teen, it was all very like, "You're a number on a chart," and we didn't do anything that I needed to. I needed someone to really talk all my issues out with, and at the hospital I was at, it was like, "Oh, we're going to do med management, and you're going to take these, and we're gonna keep you isolated in your room."
They wouldn't even let me talk to other patients, really. They monitored how you were allowed to even be around other people. I was safe when I was in the hospital. I didn't feel like I was going to hurt myself while I was there, but I wasn't even allowed to interact with other people, and I wanted to just get out. Even when I did get out, I didn't feel like I was free from the feeling of wanting to kill myself again, and even still, I was like, "I'll say anything you want just to let me out of here," 'cause it felt like I was in prison.
I knew I would just have to do a lot of recovering on my own. I started looking for organizations and people to talk to who were more like me, who got it, rather than these doctors who were just like, "You're my 10:30 appointment. What are you going to do to be safe? Do you promise you're not going to go home and cut yourself?"
"Yes, I swear."
From there, I started to find people like this, and that's been way more helpful than I think a lot of doctors have been.
Des: When you were hospitalized, how did that come about? Were you taken? Did you call? Was it voluntary?
Kristy: My sister found me in my apartment. I had been there, unconscious, for a day before anyone found me. Because no one heard from me in over a day, they came looking for me and found me. I was taken by ambulance to a regular hospital. I was cared for there for a day and then taken to a psychiatric hospital.
Des: Are you on meds now?
Kristy: I'm on different medications for different things. Another big thing that I've dealt with is that I have a condition where I have seizures when I get too stressed out. Up until this, I had been going through a time where I was getting more and more stressed and having more and more seizures, sometimes in public places and at work, and that was humiliating every time. The stress was creating more stress, and the health problems were creating more health problems.
I was needing more medication, and I wanted to just get off all of it, and no one was accepting that that was something that I could do. I haven't been off of a depression medication since I was sixteen. I have been on something to medicate me, whether it's worked or not, since then, and whether it's been a high or a low dose, so I've always needed it, as much as I haven't wanted it. I hate that.
Des: Do you think you need it?
Kristy: Days that I haven't taken it, I've crashed off of it. I've gone for maybe a week at the most without taking it. It's hard to say, because if I was going to make a commitment to come off of it, detoxing off of it would be really rough. Really, really hard. Would it be me going through just detoxing off of it and then I'd be better, or would I really just throw myself into this really bad thing of coming off of it and then I would just get worse, and then something really bad would happen again?
My doctors can't agree with each other. They're just like, "Take some more. Take some more. More milligrams," and I don't need that.
Des: Do you think you have any control over how you're being medicated? Do they respect your opinions when you give them?
Kristy: Some of the doctors I've had have, yes, and I think I have definitely looked for my own control. I've struggled because of that. What I mean by that is that I've gone through periods of time with my medication where I would stop eating and I would develop really obsessive habits like cutting off all my hair—not all of it, but cutting at it—and picking at my skin until it bleeds, and not sleeping, sleeping too much. I would go through all this kind of stuff to feel like I had control over some aspect of my physical self.
In the end, I never felt better until this year. I finally started to. I think I've kind of hit a reset button after all this, and talking about it has done a lot for me because I think people think of suicide and suicide attempt survivors, and they're just like—everyone I tell, they're like, "No, not you! You're so happy! What do you mean?"
You must hear that all the time.
Des: I mean, not me. I feel like people think it's obvious that I tried [to kill myself]. But yeah, there's this element of surprise sometimes, which is a big part of what the project is about.
Kristy: Right. And so when people hear it from me, it's good for them to know that some of it's a mask, and some of it is me just trying so hard to push through all the crap that I deal with. That helps because, because of that, people have come rushing to help me at times I really need it. I have developed friendships with people who, if I text them in the middle of the night and say, "I need you right now," they come straight to my house. I've learned to be way more aware of what I need, and who I need, and when I need it, and how I need it, and that's done wonders for me.
I think that's important for everyone to know, no matter who you are. When to speak up, when to say no, when to say yes. It's helped me a lot.
Des: How do you tell people?
Kristy: That's hard. It's really hard, because a lot of people in my life don't know how to deal with it. My family, and people I'm close with, they've always wondered, "What are you sad about, and how can we fix it? Let's just fix it. Why are you sad? Is it money? Is it your job? We can fix it."
And it goes so, so far beyond that. You know, [with] my depression and my anxiety, I've had to miss important things. I've had to skip two of my very close friends' weddings because my anxiety wouldn't let me get there, and to explain that to them, to be like, "I'm just too anxious to show up..."
They're like, "What are you talking about? Just come."
That has been really hard.
I tell people that I’m not so close with, "I'm having a really tough day, and I struggle with depression, and I can't do this or this or this."
People that I'm closer with, I tell them anything [they] want to know. I'm not scared to. I live very much by the idea that if you love me, if you're close to me, you'll accept me, and I'll tell you anything, and I do. I guess it really depends on the person and what they want to know.
Des: Tell me more about how you went about finding a community of people who understand.
Kristy: My spirituality has been really good for that. I've found a really good group of spiritual people, and that has helped me. Media and Facebook are really good for that because you can say something or look at something, and it all connects to each other. That's how I found Live Through This. You can click to one thing to reach another thing, and I love that. For me, that's what's been the easiest.
And I think that people just know people. You know, "I've got this friend who went through something really similar [to what] you did. You guys should talk."
Talking, for me, helps the most, because I've silenced myself for so long. Like I said, since I was a kid. I had these ideas that I didn't understand, and trying to bury them is the most painful thing. Living with these ideas that people cast as being wrong and unacceptable, or that are just really not that big of a deal, or that [people think] I'm overdramatizing—that is really, really hard, and especially when it's people that you work with.
When I think about people that I work with professionally finding out, or even just acquaintances, it's like, I don't want to live in this fear that anyone could find out about who I am, and judge me. I hate that feeling. So I've tried to build myself a community of people who will be loving and understand, and I live with the idea that if you don't, then I don't need you, and that's helped too.
Des: What are you feeling when you are actively suicidal? What were you feeling right before you attempted?
Kristy: That day, I was in a really blind rage, and that was a feeling I hadn't felt accompanied with suicidal feelings before, which was really different.
I had a doctor's appointment that morning, and we were talking about switching medications again, and in my head, I was like, "I don't want to do this again. I can't," and the more I thought about it, the more it just built up in me, this frustration, and I just wanted to hurt myself so bad. I wanted to feel pain, and I didn't care what happened. I didn't care. I lost all sense of responsibility, or caring, which says a lot from me, because my personality is that I care way too much about other people and the people in my life. That can be good, because that has saved me a lot, too. It's been my reason for living a lot.
The few weeks before that, I had had a really sad, bad day, and I thought about killing myself. I wrote my sister, who is my best friend, a suicide note begging her to just forgive me, that I just couldn’t do it anymore. It was the first and only suicide note I've ever written, and it was just to her, asking her to just please understand that I don't want to be in this pain anymore. I ripped it up that day and tried to forget about it, but then again, those two weeks later, it kind of stuck with me, and I was just [frustrated].
I think frustration is the emotion that overrides all of them, in the end, for me. Feeling really frustrated and just like I don’t want to do it anymore, like I've exerted all my energy. There's none left.
Des: Is suicide still an option for you?
Kristy: It's not. That's not to say it doesn't go into my head, those thoughts. Honestly, they're comforting thoughts sometimes. It's irrational, like, "If only I could just die instead of deal with this day."
Up until that time, it had never gotten to a point where it was like, "I'm going to die rather than deal with this day."
But I know now the impact it would have, and I don't want to do it. I don't want to do it. I just know that it's more of a comforting thought than it is an actual option. So, for me, now, it's just knowing how to live with that thought, and how to take all I've learned and quiet that thought and say, "We can do this. We can get through this day. It's not as bad as that."
Des: What do you think would be the best plan of action for somebody who had just attempted, or for their support system? What would be the best thing to get them out of a crisis in such a way that they felt respected and loved after an attempt?
Kristy: I think understanding goes a long way. It has been so important to me—even though what I feel isn't rational, and it's not okay to just kill myself—for someone to say, "I can understand why you would feel like that, and it's okay, and we're going to figure it out," ...rather than, "You should not feel like that. Stop. You don't have to. No..."
I think it does go a long way towards feeling respected in that it's just feeling like you're not wrong for having these feelings. You don't want to feel wrong.
Des: What do you do now when you have a bad day?
Kristy: Like I said, I have just learned what I need. I've become way more in tune with myself.
[If] I get an invitation to go somewhere and I don't want to go, I don't force myself, whereas before, I'd make myself, and I'd be miserable and anxious and tired. I don't have to go.
I check in with myself: Am I just feeling grouchy because I'm hungry, 'cause I haven't eaten today? That goes a long way. Who do I have that I'm forgetting about that I can call, or get together with, or just tell that I love? That goes a long way. So in all areas, asking myself, "What do I need?" and making sure I get it.
Des: How did you teach yourself all of this? How did you learn to know what you need? What did you do to get there?
Kristy: That's a good question. I think I have either realized myself, or it's been pointed out to me, like, "Kristy, you haven't eaten today. Maybe that's not helping."
Then I'd be like, "Okay, I need to remember to do that."
It was a huge realization for me to realize I don't have to do anything I don't want to. That was huge for me to realize and overcome. I've always had it in my head, like, "I need to go to this party because I got invited. I need to go to this wedding because I got invited." I don't have to. If I'm too anxious to go, I don't have to. I have to live with the decision I make, so am I going to feel bad because I didn't? Maybe.
It goes really far with my struggles with weight loss and working out. I've always struggled to lose weight, and so I dealt with that with the gym. Like, "If I don't go, am I going to be able to live with the fact that I didn’t?" It's either face my anxiety and go, or stay home and live with the feelings that I chose not to.
I've just learned to understand that I have a choice in everything, and I also have to live with the consequences of everything. I never knew that until, maybe, this year. I guess I've always felt like you have to do all these things 'cause everyone tells you to.
Kristy: I don't think a lot of people understand, and that makes it harder, because I think that, if people did understand, if they were more understanding—you don't have to get it, but you do have to respect it, I think...
Des: How do we get people to understand?
Kristy: I think talking about it and keeping an open mind helps. People have developed opinions on depression and anxiety and medications, and everyone has their opinions, but some people are not open to talking about it.
I felt, a lot of times in my life, like I was just being too dramatic. I had a doctor tell me once, "I think you're just saying you feel like killing yourself as a way to get attention because you don't know what else to say."
I'm like, "I'm trying to be honest, because I'm really afraid I'm going to kill myself," and then I did [attempt].
So, I get that there are people who do say things that they don't mean for attention, but there is this huge group of people who don't have a voice, who can't say, "I want to kill myself," because they're going to just get pointed at and told, "You're being dramatic."
Des: What do you think about the idea that suicide is selfish?
Kristy: I get why people say it, and I have had it said to me.
In my dark moments, I've felt like, "It's selfish for you to expect me to live because you want me to be alive, but if you felt the pain I was in, you wouldn't say it was a selfish thing. You would get it. Just like anyone suffering from any kind of disease. [If] it was you watching someone die of cancer, you wouldn't say it was selfish for them to want to die. They're in incredible pain..."
So... selfish? I get why people would think that, but those are the people who don't know what it feels like. The people who don't know what it feels like are the people that are saying that.
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 Lucia Daniels, who volunteers at the Tennessee Suicide Prevention Network, a Live Through This partner organization, for providing the transcription for Kristy's interview.
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