Lyndee McKinley is a foster parent and owner of a catering company. She was 23 when I interviewed her in Austin, TX, on November 26, 2013.
When I was 17, I left home for college. I graduated a year early and moved to Denver, Colorado, for school—for art school. About five months later, I kind of blew a fuse in my brain, basically.
Looking back, I probably suffered with depression since 12 or 13, and that's when self-harm stuff started showing up with burning. My parents kind of addressed it, brought it up, and then we didn't really talk about it again. I spent most of my high school years really trying to understand joy, and just not understanding why I couldn't grasp it. I didn't know if there was anything wrong.
I was just like, "Man!"
I kept studying and just couldn't get it. So, one January, about five months after I'd gone to college, I just hit a wall, and things just got crazy. I started self-medicating and kind of spiraled really quick.
A month later I realized, “I think it's time to get out of Dodge,” and just headed home.
I moved back in with my parents because, like most people who have been through depression know, sometimes it gets to the point when you just can't function on a day-to-day basis, and so I just wasn't functioning. It was really dark and weird, and there were times when my mom couldn't be in the same room with me because she felt like it wasn't even me anymore. I was just so far detached, you know?
It took about another four months for me to get help—psychiatric help—and that four months was pretty hard. I felt like I was drowning and everyone else was just standing back [and asking], "Does she need help?" and, "How do we help her?"
[They were saying], "`She's really strong," and I was just drowning.
I was like, "I'm over here drowning! Why will no one help me?"
One night, I ended up checking myself into a psychiatric ward because the thoughts were just hard. So, I checked myself into a ward, and it was a three day outpatient program. They kind of just sent me away like, “You're fine," but they did put me on meds. It really expedited me getting treatment, which was what I needed, so it worked.
The problem was that they put me on the opposite medication that I needed to be on, so I got a lot worse before it got a lot better. From there, I was able to switch to a different psychiatrist, but it [was difficult] because there were so many waiting lists. It was like you had to wait a month before you could even see a doctor. So, I got on meds, which started helping, and that's the background of how things got started.
I struggled with the suicidal ideation all the way from the beginning, and it started out really subtle. Subtle and, looking back, I remember these images in my head. To me, now, they're jarring and gruesome. To me, then, they were sweet and calming, and that's kind of frightening, because these are images that are so vivid and consuming in your head, and they're so twisted, but yet it's like they're a sweet voice luring you in, like, "This is what's calming and this is how you deal with pain," so those got worse.
Des: Tell me more about that.
Lyndee: I don't like to get into specific detail because when I was going through it, I romanticized it so much that, when I heard other people's stories, I grabbed into them. They're just images of death. It's like you're obsessed with death itself. What other people would see as deep and dark felt safe—images of suicide in various forms. I would focus on one for a season and then focus on another for a season, and they got continually worse. It starts with driving your car into an icy river and it ends with something fairly more gruesome. I remember having the obsession with drowning and putting water up to my face just to breathe it in to see what it would feel like. It's so weird talking about it now because I just, I don't know, I guess... I don't know.
This all happened pretty fast. I was admitted to the hospital in August of 2008. Six weeks before that, I bought a coffee shop. It was just handed to me.
It was totally this God-moment where I was like, "This is the craziest idea! This is insane! This is so nuts!" Everything just lined up and went into place. I remember thinking, "I'm 18. I'm on five different psychiatric meds, not including homeopathic stuff. This is ridiculous. This is insane!" And it's so cool, because that shop ended up being the center point of my healing process...
A lot of people would say things like, "What do you have to be depressed about?" Which is silly because depression doesn't need a reason, it just is.
For the most part, my life wasn't totally screwed up. I didn't come from a bad background; I didn't have the reasons that people wanted. It just was.
That season was the biggest failing of my friends and my church. Everyone bailed. My parents were there, but they're my parents, and it was weird. It was awkward and uncomfortable and we hadn't established the type of relationship to make talking about it easy, so I felt pretty distant from them. Then, of course, like I said, my friends bailed. I had one friend who kind of came alongside me and it was great, because it was a place I could go when I felt dangerous and scared.
It was pretty lonely—it's just you in your head. You’re fighting a losing battle when it's you against you.
One day, I was doing fine. I felt really spaced out and was on my way home, and I got home a little before my parents did. I was struggling with those consuming thoughts. They would start out as a little seed in my head, and then they would engulf me, and I couldn't get my head to be quiet about them. They were so obsessive that I couldn't pull myself out of it. I got hit with that on my drive home.
I remember walking in the door and just repeating to myself, "I'm going to go inside. I'm going to take my normal prescribed amount of medication, and I'm going to go to bed. I'm going to go inside. I'm going to take my normal amount of medication. I'm going to go to bed."
I never truly wanted to die. It was an obsession with death. I know it's hard for people to understand the difference, but it truly was a difference.
So, I walked inside and, instead, I poured myself a glass of water and took about 30-50 aspirin. I was pretty out of it, but I was able to regain enough sense to be like, "Hey, maybe I should tell someone I just did this so that I don't actually die..."
I guess there was just some part of me that knew that I didn't really want to die.
My parents got home sometime after that.
I pulled my dad aside and I was like, "Hey, so, I just took a bunch of medicine."
I was was pretty spaced out, so I couldn't really think past, "Hey, I took medicine."
They took me to the ER. The hospital was pretty rough. People are mean and really lack a lot of understanding. In the ER, after they had given me a cup of charcoal to drink, the doctor who was taking notes just looked at me and was like, "Well, why'd you do it?"
I was like, "I honestly don't know."
At this point, I'm out of it, and I really don't know. I don't have any idea why I decided to do this. You know, how do you tell somebody, “Well, the voices in my head told me to, and I couldn't get them to be quiet, so I did?”
That was hard, and that was the general attitude I got from everyone. He kind of snickered at me and shook his head. Most of the nurses were pretty rude. It was just awful.
The next 24-48 hours was me throwing up a lot and them taking my blood every hour to test it. If I remember correctly, what they said is that, when the toxin levels in your blood reach 10, it's considered toxic. When they reach, I think, around 21, it's considered critical. Mine got all the way up to 53. I remember watching my little heart monitor... I was told later that my body was kind of giving up.
I remember my dad sitting in the corner with his head in his hands, just sitting there, because at this point, the doctors had just been like, "We've done all we can do now."
I remember saying this prayer. I'm sure it was less put-together given the circumstances, but it was basically like, "Lord, I need your help here. I've done all the fighting I can do and I can't do this anymore. I'm going to need your help."
I remember looking at my dad and just being like, "Just wait. Just wait until they take my blood the next time and my levels will be down."
They had been continually rising for hours. The next time they took my blood, [the levels] finally started to drop, so that was crazy.
So, obviously, I got out. Luckily, I was sent home, which was great because, at that point, I was so tired and so scared and I just didn't want to be sent to a facility. It's a really scary thing when you're there and you don't have a say in it anymore.
I got sent home. It was awkward. It's weird. People don't understand. There were a ton of people who showed up to see me at the hospital, and yet, a week afterwards, there were no calls to go to coffee or to hang out. I didn't even need to talk about it, I just wanted to hang out with people.
I remember getting out of the hospital and being like, "Okay, I'm going back to work on Monday!"
My mom was like, "Whoa, you need to take time off."
That's how disconnected I was from everything.
After that, things did start to get better, but it was still hard because of that whole lack of understanding. It's hard when you don't have a support group around you, or people to understand and just watch a movie with you when you need company. I used to tell myself that I was such a loner because I didn't really have a lot of friends, but now I know I'm a huge softie and I love people. I need to be around people, and that's okay! I think that probably contributed a lot to that time too, not being around people.
The coffee shop was great because I couldn't hold a job. You can't be like, "Hey, do you want to hire me? By the way, I have panic attacks! And if I have one, I've got to take a Xanax and go home! Yay!"
So, the shop was great and my mom was great. She was a backup for me on the days I couldn't get out of bed. She'd go in for me and make sure everything was okay. It gave me a place to love on people and be around people and to fix people their coffee and genuinely ask people how their day was going. It gave me interaction, because other than that, I didn't have anybody and I didn't have anything.
Des: What does a panic attack feel like?
Lyndee: [My] panic attacks were fairly severe, I guess. I don't really have a frame of reference of what other people's panic attacks are like, but it's fairly awful. All of a sudden, I just couldn't breathe, and I would be gasping for air and just not be able to slow myself down to breathe. I remember I would sit on the front porch and smoke a cigarette because it would force my body to slow down long enough to take a full breath. It's like you're choking and gasping for air and just can't stop. That's what mine were like, at least. Panic attacks are crappy.
Des: They're terrible. What brought them on? What could bring them on?
Lyndee: The weird thing with depression was that I didn't really have a lot of, like I said, reasons behind a lot of it. There was something that definitely triggered when I blew that fuse in my brain. That initial trigger that just kind of set me off, and a lot of it had to do with not knowing how to cope appropriately with emotions. Panic attacks could have been set by anything that had an emotional charge to it that I couldn't handle, because I was trying to handle everything else...
They scared people. Some of my friends, I guess I forgot to warn some of them. My one friend who was really there for me through all of it—I remember the first time I had one [around him, and] it scared him real bad. You just don't know what to do. I guess there's not much to do at that point, other than just trying to calm down. It's definitely not [helpful] adding to the situation by being like, "Are you okay?! Are you okay!"
Des: I think people with panic attacks need thunder jackets or something!
Lyndee: Or a sleeping bag that zips up all the way to your head like, "Please just leave me alone a minute so I can breathe."
Des: Stay there, but leave me alone!
Lyndee: I want you here, but don't talk to me. Just, stand here.
I don't know if this will be interesting or not, but I relate a lot with images. I remember, when I was going through some of the deep parts of depression and when I didn't have people around me, I just had this image in my head. I really wanted to get through it and be on the other side so I could help other people that I knew would go through it, because it is a lonely process. I had this image in my head of sitting in this deep dark pit, right, and it's lonely and it sucks and it's scary and it's awful and, above ground, there are people just walking by with their normal lives.
Sometimes people stop and look in, look down, and they're like, "Hey! You're in the pit!" Then they keep walking.
Christians can be the worst. I love my God, but man, they can be awful. They would just come up and be like, "I pray for strength! That you would just have faith!" Then they'd just keep walking.
You're just like, "Really, dude?"
All I wanted was for someone to sit on the top of that pit and just sit there and be there, so that I knew there'd be someone that was there. I don't need you to come down to my pit. You don't want to be down here, man, it's awful! I just need you to sit up there and be there and at least I know that I'll be okay because someone's there, you know what I mean?
Des: I do.
Lyndee: Yeah, it's lonely.
Des: So what happened after? Now you have a husband and a new business, and it seems like you're doing better.
Lyndee: I'm way better. I'm off of all my meds. I ended up getting off all my medication, which was nice. The meds really helped, but after a while, I was pretty ready to be off them. It was hard to think clearly and I just felt... let's see, how do I say this? Through most of that, my identity was so wrapped in my depression that that's who I was. It was really nice to get away from it and find out who I actually was, because I had let the depression define me for so long that I didn't even know who Lyndee was anymore.
After the hospital and after I got off meds, things were still not awesome... More traumatic things kept happening. They might not be traumatic for everyone, but they were for me. They were hard and life didn't stop. Life didn't pause and let me heal from the depression. That was rough. There were days that I almost wanted to go back to the depression to have an excuse for it to be okay for me to be in bed, and an excuse for it to be okay for me to not be functioning. I felt like I needed that. I guess, for some reason, I felt like I wasn't allowed to be hurt anymore about things, and that I was supposed to be fine now.
I still struggled for a while. I hid razor blades in case I wanted to find them again. I remember one night laying in bed and having some of those suicidal thoughts come back and, like I'd said before, there were these overwhelming, all-consuming thoughts and images [in my head]. I remember telling myself that I had to stay in bed, because I knew that if I got up, I was going to go get them.
The thing is, though, that once the depression had kind of subsided, I had control of my head again. When stuff like that happened, I was actually equipped to handle it, and I was equipped to fight back. When the depression was bad and when I was in that spot—it's like you're being thrown to a pack of wolves and you have nothing to fight with. You're fighting for your life every day with nothing.
Later, when stuff started happening and trauma and life and things were hard, there were definitely still some of those tendencies to hide away in my head again and use not eating or burning or cutting or whatever to cope. But because my brain was healthy, I was able to fight back.
Des: How do you maintain your mental health?
Lyndee: I see a counselor sometimes. All those things that I really hated people telling me have been really helpful. I used to hate when people told me to exercise.
I was like, "Well, screw you! I can't even get out of bed and you want me to jogging!"
I rock climb now. I found something that I really enjoy to do outside, and that really helps. When I'm thinking clearly, I try to think of things that I know will combat the hard feelings that I get.
So, when I'm unmotivated and it's making me depressed because I'm not doing anything, I can go back to that bank of things I have in my head and I'm like, "Okay, remember you said that if you took a walk around the block it would help you?" or, "If you get out of the house...," or, "If you go to breakfast with somebody..."
By thinking of those when I was thinking clearly, I didn't have to think about it when I wasn't thinking clearly. I just had to go back to my list in my head and be like, "Okay. I know these things help."
Des: Right. It's so easy to wallow, though.
Lyndee: It is, and during the season of depression, that was one of the things I had decided to do—I made a safety net for myself. I listed three names. I had my brother as one. He was the one I called if I was having a day that I knew could potentially lead to suicidal thinking. Usually, I'd have an idea early in the day that the day wasn't going to go well and my head was slipping and it was going to slip down pretty fast.
I’d call my brother and I'd be like, "Hey, you know, today's not looking so great." Then he'd know to call me in a couple hours to check up on me.
I knew I wanted to make it through this, so I tried to give myself the best chance I could.
I had a second name that I called if I just needed to get out of the house, like I needed a place to go to be safe. I would call them and I'd drive to their house and I'd stay with them for the night. Then I had a third name that I would call if I didn't do so well and I ended up indulging in self-deprecating things, and that person would talk me through it.
It was always really hard to make that third call. When you’re already in that situation, you don't really want anybody's help, and you don't want to anybody to know, and there's just so much there. That's why I kind of tried to align the others first, so that way I had people checking up on me.
But it was still good to have that third person to walk me through it, to walk me through, "Put the utensil down. It's okay to cry. Just cry. I'm here," that sort of thing. That really helped. That really helped.
Des: Yeah. That's a hard thing. It's a hard thing to ask of yourself and a hard thing to ask of another person.
Lyndee: I have realized, though, that at the time, I didn’t really have a lot of understanding for other people, because I was like, "You guys bailed. What the heck?" I realize now that there's just a lot of lack of understanding and I don’t think anybody knew how bad it was. I don't think anybody knew what it was like or what to do. I have a lot more grace with that now, because I know it's hard, and I know it's hard to be there for people who are depressed. It is. It's just a hard thing to do.
I'm not saying that gets them off the hook, because I could have really used some friends, but I did have something amazing happen just like a month ago. One of my friends who had bailed pulled me aside. I hadn't seen her in a while and I saw her and she said, "You know, I have somebody close to me who was struggling with suicide and it really brought a lot of things to light, and I just really wanted to let you know that I’m so sorry for bailing."
That was so incredible to me because it's been years. I didn't think I would ever get an apology, or that they would even know that what they did was terrible. That was cool. It gave me a little bit of hope.
I was like, "Oh my gosh, wow. That's cool that you realize that you did bail." That was pretty neat.
Des: How does your faith play into the attempt, the depression, the subsequent recovery, day-to-day, dealing with suicidal thoughts?
Lyndee: You know, I always find the subject of faith to be sticky.
Des: I want to hear it. It sounds like an important part of your life.
Lyndee: It is! It's a super important part of my life.
One thing that people totally didn't understand was that I was closer to God when I was walking through depression than I have been in most of my life, which is really what frustrated me. There was a lack of understanding in the church. There were people who thought, "You just need to have more faith. Your lack of faith is what has led to your depression. You need to have strength," things like that—all these Christian vocab words that they like to throw around.
But I knew my God loved me and I knew he was there for me with it.
There were times when it was hard because I had zero emotions, and so, for a lot of it, asking me to love my God was difficult. I didn't necessarily feel connected the whole time, but that awareness of him being there really helped. Honestly, that's what really got me though most of it—when I didn't have anybody else, that's all I had.
It really hurts my heart that the church has failed so miserably when it comes to depression. The great thing is, though, that God remains completely faithful through all of it.
Des: It's not just the church.
Lyndee: That's true.
Des: Most of us have failed.
Lyndee: That's true. People fail.
I've come a long ways. I went through some years of being very bitter. I think I just expected more from them. I've been very involved with my church for a very long time, and so I just expected more, but you're totally right. It's people in general. There's this whole myth-conception about depression and people having these false ideas of what it is and what it isn't. It's led to so much hurt because there are so many people who are just dying for someone to help them. [People think] it makes them sound weak when they say that they need help, but you just do! You're fighting for your life, man. It's hard.
I remember thinking that I was screaming out for help and couldn't believe that it was taking people that long to help me. I wasn't even functioning, so trying to research getting to a psychiatrist? C'mon! All you had to do was call psychiatrists for me because I couldn't even function. Aah!
Des: And there's nothing easy about that process, either. How could the church do better with dealing with depression in their community? How could people, in general, do better with dealing with depression in their community? I'm curious because the church is a community that's supposed to be very tightly knit.
Lyndee: I feel like the church is supposed to be a place where all people are welcome, and I feel like it's a place where people could, should, should, be able to feel comfortable to go for anything—for any sort of need. I just wish that they had their doors more open to where anybody who was struggling would be able to go and be like, "Hey man, I might not even believe what you believe, but I'm struggling and I need help!" And for people to help and love on them
I think one way that people, in general—the church and people—can do better is not jumping to conclusions and actually doing some reading. Read up about it. If you have a friend or you know somebody and you're like, "Hey, they're going through something," maybe show some interest. Ask questions. I would have loved for somebody to ask me questions. They were so scared to talk about it when I wasn't. Asking me questions wasn't going to offend me. It would have showed me that they were interested in what was happening in my life. I think that, sometimes, when people are in that deep, dark place, and when suicide starts to become a real thing, something that is an option for them, sometimes you need somebody to show some interest in your life. You know, to be interested in what's going on and in what you're going through. I think that goes a long ways.
Des: Do you still struggle with suicidal thoughts?
Lyndee: Not really. I haven't struggled with suicidal thinking in a long, long time. There have been times when things have come up—maybe my husband and I got in a big fight or something, and my initial reaction is to hide in my head, to go in that little away-place to where I am just gone, or to self-deprecation, not eating. Small stuff. It's not small, but stuff like that.
But like I mentioned earlier, since my brain is healthier now, it's easier to be like, "Wait a minute, I don't want to do that. That's not something I want to do," and then that's that.
Des: Is suicide still an option for you?
Lyndee: It's not.
Des: How does your husband deal with it when things get difficult for you?
Lyndee: That has actually been the biggest blessing. He's incredible. I would have never known it was possible for someone to react the way that he does, which is funny because my husband is not a very big softie. If he thinks you need to put on your big girl pants, then he'll tell you.
He's like, "You know, you got something to do! You need to do it!"
But when it comes to those times when he knows that I'm struggling, he'll—towards the beginning of our marriage, when I was still trying to retreat into my head, he would sit down with me and be like, "Okay, I need you to be here. I need you to be present with me."
Even if we're in the middle of an argument he'd stop. He'd say, "I need you to be here, I need you to come back," and he would just sit and talk to me until he made sure that I was present and where I should be.
I still have panic attacks sometimes, and he's also really great about stopping whatever we're doing and just being like, "Hey, I'm here. I've got you. You're here. You're with me," reminding me of where I’m at, because there were times when I would flashback to other places, and I'd just need to know that I was here and safe and he'd talk me through that. He knows that I’m a big touchy-feely person, so there's times when I just need weight on me, or a hug.
Des: Or a thunder jacket!
Lyndee: Or a weighted blanket, man! I think I want a weighted blanket.
Having that has been incredible. I never knew that it was even possible to have that. He cuts me a lot of slack, too. There's days where he'll come home and I'm crying because I'm like, "I didn't do anything today and I'm so mad at myself."
He'll be like "Whoa, we're gonna cut you some slack here. Did anyone die because you didn't do the dishes? We’re okay!"
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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Thanks to Whitney Rakich, who is an incredible and helpful human, for providing the transcription of Lyndee's interview.