Melanie Demoree graduated with a Bachelor of Science degree in Psychology in 2013. Her career goal is to use her degree to erase the stigma against mental illness. She was 22 when I interviewed her in Boston, MA, on April 7, 2014.
My story begins around when I was 12, probably. In middle school I started struggling with depression and, at the time, I didn't know what that was. I wasn't familiar with mental illness at all. So it was very lonely and I was kind of overwhelmed with a sense of hopelessness and worthlessness and not really wanting to live, and really having no reason to [feel that way]. I grew up with a great family and good friends and I never had any big, traumatic experiences or anything, which I'm grateful for, so I always felt kind of guilty for feeling that way.
Then I started kind of struggling with eating to cope with that, I think, because I felt like everything in my life was crumbling down and that was one of the few things I could control. I ended up losing a lot of weight really quickly and my mom picked up on that, so then she had me go to a therapist and see a doctor where you're really thin. I was ashamed of that, 'cause going to a therapist—I thought that meant I was crazy.
I didn't really like her, anyway. I'm not a religious person and she mentioned something about the life that God gave me and I was just like, "Okay, goodbye."
I convinced my mom that I was okay and I could do it on my own and fix whatever it was but, of course, that didn't happen, so I learned to fake a smile pretty good. I isolated myself from a lot of my friends, but I'm really lucky because my best friend, who I'm still best friends with to this day, was there at that time, and she stuck by my side through it all, so I'm grateful for that.
I found out about the organization To Write Love On Her Arms (TWLOHA) when I was around 15, and that helped me a lot because that was the first thing that kind of made me realize that you don't need a reason to have depression, it can be chemical, and that it's not your fault. It just taught me a lot about mental illness, in general. That was kind of the first thing that opened my eyes to it. I think the things [about it] that helped me the most were instilling hope in me and [helping me] realize that I'm not alone. After I found that, that was comforting for a few years.
The negative thoughts and stuff were still there all along, and I had a lot of suicidal ideation. The first time—I think the only time, I shouldn't say the first time—I acted on it was my senior year of high school. Nothing really happened as a result. I didn't have to be hospitalized or anything, so no one even knew about it, so I didn't think it was that big of a deal. I just kind of repressed it, and it wasn't until finding this project that I realized that intentionally trying to take your life is a big deal regardless of what results from it, and I'm grateful I'm still here today. But it's definitely been a struggle getting here and getting to a good point in my life, where I feel like I'm finally at now.
Music has helped me a lot; it's been a huge comfort. I've never been good with words, so I feel like music has helped me kind of express what I haven't been able to…
TWLOHA gave me the courage to seek help, so I did that probably when I was around 18, 19. That was the first time that I found therapy to be really helpful. I started taking medication for my depression, too. Even then, it was still not something I was comfortable with. Only my mom knew and my best friend. It took me awhile to gather the courage to tell the people I'm closest to, and it wasn't until this past year that I really became comfortable with it and talking about it and realizing that it's okay to be in therapy and be on medication, and it doesn't matter how long you have to be on it. If it helps me, then that's all that matters.
The stigma was a lot of the reason that I wouldn't talk about it, ‘cause I didn't want people to think that I was crazy or weak or selfish. That's one of my reasons why I really want to erase the stigma ‘cause, of course, those things are not true, and I think it is harder for people who have never been in that spot to understand. I think education is very important.
The reason I made my suicide attempt was ‘cause I was just in such immense pain that I felt was too much to handle and I thought that was the only way out. I thought that the world would be better off without me.
One of the things that helps me a lot today is realizing the power thoughts have over you and that they aren't always true. My therapist helped me a lot, kind of stepping out of my mind to objectively like observe the thoughts that come in my mind and realizing that they're true—or not—and if they're not, how do you change them? That’s helped me a lot. And then accepting who I am, and finally starting to align my beliefs with my actions. I've been a supporter of TWLOHA for so long and encouraging people to talk about their story, but I would always remain silent.
Des: Have you ever been on medication?
Melanie: Yes, and I am now. That was something that was really hard for me. I think it made the situation a lot more real, and then I thought it was going to be an easy fix but it, of course, is not. Finding the right thing that works for you; that was hard. Then I stopped taking it for a while because I was not comfortable with being on it and I didn't want to be on it for my whole life ‘cause I just—‘cause of the stigma. Last year I started going on it again, and I'm a lot more comfortable and open about it now, and I just don't care about the stigma anymore.
Des: Did you find something that works for you?
Des: Do you know anybody who has attempted or died by suicide?
Melanie: I don't know anyone who has died by suicide. I've had friends’ friends die, but none that I have known personally. I know a couple people who have attempted.
Des: Do you feel like it's easier to talk to them?
Melanie: Yeah, ‘cause I feel like, if you've never been in that mindset, it's really hard to understand. Sometimes I think people do their best to try, but I'm glad people don't necessarily understand. I don't want people to understand that pain and have gone through that pain.
Des: What do you think having community of survivors can and will do in the long term?
Melanie: I think it will help erase the stigma and make suicide something that is easier to talk about. What's the word I'm looking for? More acceptable. There we go. ‘Cause it's something that I feel is hush hush in society, and it shouldn't be. It's something that is really hard to bring up, but I think having a community of survivors sharing their stories will help with all that.
Des: Who does suicide affect?
Melanie: Everyone. I think that's something that's important to note. You can never look at someone and peg them as depressed or suicidal or struggling with any other mental illness. There's no one population or race or sexual orientation that it affects, ‘cause it affects everyone.
Melanie: I think that's one of the big things, too. I think it’s just important to emphasize, ‘cause I know with me, people—[I’m] probably one of the last people that people would expect to be struggling with depression, because I just kind of learned to fake through it so well, and I was lucky in the sense that it didn't affect my school work and stuff. I always did really well in school. I think my schoolwork was a distraction for me and [doing well in that] was one of the few things that gave me a sense purpose. I just remember in high school, some people thought I was really happy, so it just kind of shows how people can mask it so well.
Des: Given that you were one of the people who seemed like a “surprise attempter,” what do you think the stereotype is for a suicidal person, or what have you experienced it to be?
Melanie: I'd probably say someone who doesn't do well in school, [or] is kind of—has behavioral issues that are more public, if that makes sense. I don't know, I guess kind of like acting out in class and stuff in school. I feel like a lot of people have this picture in their mind of, like, the emo kids who dress in all black and stuff like that.
Des: What drew you to psychology as a major, and how much did you learn about the topic of suicide while you were studying?
Melanie: I pretty much learned nothing about suicide. I think my own experience led me toward it, and no other major interests me. I'm just interested in people in general and I've always been someone who's more interested in getting to really know people and having deep conversations and I hate small talk and stuff, so psychology just kind of seems like the best route for me.
Des: What about your abnormal psych class?
Melanie: We learned more about individual disorders. I learned about all the personality disorders, which, of course, I don't remember what I learned, but I learned about schizophrenia, bipolar. They're all important things to learn about, but suicide wasn't something that was really talked about.
Des: Is suicide still an option for you?
Melanie: I feel like that's a hard question because I'm at a good point right now and I'm in a healthy state of mind so, ideally, I'd like to say no, but there is no way of knowing for sure. I always try my best to realize when I start to go backward and catch myself and reach out for help before I hit rock bottom again. So I don't get to that point again.
Little things help keep me going a lot now. I have notes that friends or people who I'm close with have written to me, like how they love me or something. I keep them so when I feel like those feelings come back, it just kind of grounds me, gives me reason to keep going.
And I have two nieces now. I feel like children give you an interesting perspective on things. I've always been the youngest in my family, so I've never really been around kids that much. I guess their innocence and their ability to kind of... I mean, at the age they're at now, they love me unconditionally and they don't really know my faults and stuff like that. It's interesting.
Des: If you could leave a message for other people who would be reading your story, what would you want to say to them?
Melanie: I feel like the cliché answer is that it gets better, but it's very hard to believe that when you're in an unhealthy state, and it just doesn't help when you hear that. I guess that you're never alone and that help is available. Do your best, to keep hope, and never give up. I think, for people who are considering medication and therapy, it's important to know that, obviously, it kind of works.
Des: Do you have other methods of coping that don't include medication?
Melanie: Writing. I like to write. When the weather is nice, I like to go outside and go to the beach. It just kind of helps me clear my mind. Talk to people, which that's something I didn't do for a while. Music. Music and listening to music, and I've been going to concerts a lot lately. For a while I wouldn't go, ‘cause I didn't have anyone to go with. Now I go all the time by myself and I love it.
People are like, "How do you go by yourself?"
I was like, "Honestly, I prefer to go by myself half the time."
Des: It's easier.
Melanie: It's just a different world when you go to a concert, especially with someone whose music you know really well and you connect with, and the sense of community I've found there has been really helpful. I've met some really great friends the past year by going alone and talking to some random people I met.
Des: What are your favorite bands? What are the ones that help you the most?
Melanie: The band that has helped me the most for the longest period of time is Paramore. They're actually the ones who introduced me to TWLOHA, and I just went on the cruise they hosted called Parahoy. A couple other ones that were more recent that I found out about through TWLOHA are The Lone Bellow and Satellite.
The lead singer of Satellite, Steven McMorran, has helped me a lot. He was actually one of the reasons why I was able to talk about my story and write about it for Suicide Prevention Week, ‘cause I had found something online about the meaning behind one of his songs called, “Say the Words,” and how secrets have a lot of power and when you release them and you talk about them, you've released the power that they have on you. He had said something about being yourself and letting others adjust to you rather than adjusting to other people, and I thought that piece about adjusting was really interesting and a different perspective. I was like, "That's a good perspective to have," and I always remember to let other people adjust to you.
A few other bands are The Rocket Summer and Andrew McMahon.
Des: Is there anything I didn’t ask you about?
Melanie: I guess one of the hardest things about struggling with depression was—which I kind of mentioned before—was having a reason.
For me, sometimes I would just kind of break down out of nowhere and I'd just kind of have these... I'd just cry and cry, and if people were around they'd be like, "What's wrong?"
I'd be like, "Nothing."
People would be like, "You're lying, clearly."
I'm like, "Nothing."
[It was really frustrating] feeling people didn't understand that.
Des: You know, it's funny, I hear that often.
People will come and meet with me and be like, "I don't even know if I should be here because I grew up [in a normal family], and there's nothing wrong."
It's simple: yeah, you should be here. You went through this, and that's just as valid of a story as someone who went through awful things, because that's proof that it happens to everybody.
Melanie: It took me awhile to accept that. I think it was something I was embarrassed about for a while.
I think another important thing is that no one is to blame. Like, my parents aren't to blame. I think sometimes my mom feels guilty and feels like she could have done more but, like, you couldn't have. She was always so supportive in giving me access to the mental health system and stuff like that.
I think another import thing to note is just that when people are struggling the most, they usually make it hard for people to love them, but that's when they need it the most. So for the people in my life who stuck by me when I made it almost impossible to be around me and [who] loved me anyway, [that] will always mean so much to me…
If you know someone who is struggling with a mental illness, things to say and things not to say:
Don't say, "Get over it," or "Snap out of it." Things that are not helpful. I'm trying to think of all the other awful things that I've heard that are not useful at all, but there are websites out there and stuff about what to say and not to say to someone who's struggling with depression and stuff.
Des: Yeah, those are hard things for people to know. I mean, it's so obvious. It seems so obvious.
Like, "You have so much to live for," but someone who's dealing with these kinds of crises can't feel that, or it just doesn't help to say that.
It's like, "No, just listen to me; validate my experience."
Melanie: Exactly. I think something I always appreciate, too, is my best friend. Even though she didn't necessarily understand what I was going through, she would try to find resources—books and go online and stuff to try to kind of see where I was coming from. That was really nice of her to do.
If you’re feeling suicidal, please talk to somebody. You can reach the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 or Trans Lifeline at 1-877-565-8860. 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 Matt Parr for being a super special snowflake and also for providing the transcription for Melanie's interview.
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