I pretty much grew up in what the ‘70s considered normal for upper middle class families—a shell of secrecy around the families. Especially if you’re upper middle class, everything’s a secret, and god forbid the world knew that your family wasn’t perfect. It was pretty much the demise of any mental health I had, but I still had a great childhood.
Before the age of thirteen, I was sexually abused and raped by a group of men. Well, they weren’t men. They were young guys. That’s my first time ever saying that outside of therapy. I had an eating disorder that started when I was fifteen, and I pretty much did anything I could, from the age of fourteen on, to escape my emotions.
I always knew I felt things on a deeper level from the age of seven. My parents got divorced when I was seven. I went to my mom and said, “I think I need to talk to somebody about this.” My mom, still to this day, is floored that I had insight or even the ability to know that was an option.
My dad is an alcoholic. Add that to the fire of my childhood. I definitely had situational things that led to my mood instability and the inability to mature mentally at the appropriate rate. My father was bipolar and his side of the family had mental issues. My father’s sister [died by] suicide, so I definitely have the genetic background of mental illness on my father’s side.
I went away to college and my eating disorder basically flared into taking over my life. I drank a lot. Being a freshman in college, that’s what you do. I didn’t really know how to deal with what I was dealing with.
By my junior year, I was so completely lost that I got drunk one night, went to the bathroom, and took a razor. I locked the door. My roommates heard me hysterically crying and kept knocking on the door. Then I finally told them through the door that I was going to kill myself. They called my mom and told her to come down. It was like a two and a half hour drive. Then they broke into the bathroom.
In hindsight, I would not consider that a suicide attempt. I would call that a cry for help because I don’t think I had it in me to really do it. But I think I needed to make an extreme cry for help—that’s what it was. My mom came and picked me up. I never went back to school and she threw me in intensive therapy. We didn’t even really talk about the whole bathroom thing.
First thing we did, I stopped drinking at all. I went in two to three days a week—heavy therapy. My eating disorder was still going pretty strong and, eventually, I got hospitalized for it. That was my first experience with any kind of psychiatric inpatient and it was good. It helped a lot.
After I left there, I was either nineteen or twenty. I still didn’t know how to cope. I left there, started getting lost in socializing and doing drugs, went nuts, and turned into a ‘90s club kid. I love to dance. It is still, to this day, one of my places that I go. Even though dancing is considered an extroverted type of activity, for me, it’s my most introverted place. I don’t want to dance with anybody else. I just want to lose myself in the music and be. It became that, and then drugs became part of it.
Then, my eating disorder crept back up and I did an outpatient program. Not too long after that outpatient program, I ended up getting my job where I work now, which was twenty-three years ago. I figured, “Well, I know how to be a dental assistant. I’ll do this until I figure out what I want to do with the rest of my life.” Probably a year into my job, I went out one night and did a ton of drugs and ecstasy.
I guess one part I left out was my second outpatient hospitalization for the eating disorder. They finally talked me into going on Prozac which, at the time, was just approved for bulimia. I finally agreed. I had been anti-medication up that point. That was the beginning of the end for me with medication, because I struggled with medication. After that evening of overindulging and being on Prozac—by that time, I was also on Wellbutrin—it basically gave me a nervous breakdown the following week, and I had to take a leave of absence from work. They put me on some really heavy mood stabilizers to get my brain back.
At that point, they didn’t know what to diagnose me with. They thought maybe I was bipolar, but they didn’t know if it was because of the drugs or if I truly was. My life really got back on track during that time. It was probably one of the first times that I did really well, and was really centered and focused.
I became a personal trainer and eventually moved to San Diego. When I moved, [I had] no schedule. I moved there without a job. I moved there with a boyfriend, and we had some problems. It really sent me over the edge and knocked me off all the positive stuff I was doing. I moved back home within nine months. I struggled for a while to get back on track, which I did. Off and on from then, I had some really good runs of being stable.
By the time I was in my mid-thirties, I started having a lot of side effects from my medications that were really causing issues: extreme exhaustion, inability to focus, and really severe apathy. We would just add other drugs to try to offset it. By the time I was in my late-thirties, I was working with a physician that felt, for my medications, the negatives were outweighing the benefits. She wanted me to come off, so I did in a very structured [way], overseen by a psychiatrist. I was working three times a week with a therapist where I did EMDR, which I think is a really excellent form of therapy.
Now, when I look back, I think I was in a really great place before I went off my medication. I was in a much better place than I realized because I’ve never been able to get back there. I thought I was doing so horribly back then. It was the physical symptoms that made me go off.
Fast forward to one month clean of all the psychiatric medications. I was home one day. It was the day Amy Winehouse died. I was watching the TV coverage, and I just knew that she had been in so much pain to be the intense drug addict that she was. I felt envious that she was out of her pain. I impulsively took a bunch of [pills] and, as they started kicking in, it started intoxicating me. I sent a couple “I love you” texts to some people. One of them was someone who knows a lot about suicide and behavior, and did a wellness check on me just because it was so random that I sent this in the middle of the day.
Next thing I know, I’m in the emergency room. They let me go that day because they asked me, “Do you still feel suicidal?” I said no. I wasn’t necessarily lying, but I was also still intoxicated. They had pumped my stomach and given me charcoal. I didn’t know what to say. I was scared. They let me go home.
Exactly a month later, I reached a point where I was in so much pain that I just couldn’t function. I went to my therapist that day. It was the first time a therapist had asked me if I was suicidal. I said yes. She asked me if I had a plan and I said no. She had me do a verbal agreement that I wouldn’t hurt myself, and I did. [Ed. note: Safety contracts, such as this one, are generally frowned upon these days. They’re rooted in a fear of liability, but don’t actually protect the provider. They don’t help the client and can, in fact, make the client feel worse. Most importantly, we have no proof that they work. More info here.] Then, when I got home, I was in a really low place. She told me to just journal and write, just write everything out, so I started doing that.
My boyfriend at the time, who I had a very volatile relationship with, called me and we got into a really big fight. It just set me off. It was that tipping point for me where I was like, “I have nothing that can pull me out of this hole.” I just realized at that point that I didn’t want to live anymore. I couldn’t handle the pain. I had spent all this time and money and effort. I’d done everything right. I’d followed every bit of advice from my doctor. I went to therapy like clockwork. I journaled. I did mindfulness practice. I meditated. I wrote gratitude lists every day. I mean, I was doing everything I should be and I still was not happy. I was still just in pain.
When I started writing in my journal, I turned the page, started writing a suicide note, and then I just decided it was time. I found a bunch of pictures of the people that I love and I wrote the note. I surrounded myself with photos on my bed, put the note next to me, took a ton of drugs, laid down next to my cat and cried, because I knew that he would wake up and I wouldn’t wake up. Right as I got intoxicated enough, before I passed out, I texted one of my best friends. Only one person, who had known what happened a month prior. He immediately called for a wellness check.
I had already passed out. Next thing I know, they were breaking into my apartment. I came out of it and got very violent for some reason. I make jewelry on the side. I took a steel jewelry mallet and started breaking all the glass and photos in my house, and they had to calm me down. I cut myself, and it was just a mess. That’s really all I remember.
Then I remember being in the emergency room and them pumping me and all that. That time I had to be put on a medical floor. Then they came and told me I would have to admit [myself] to the psych ward, involuntary or voluntary. So I did a voluntary. I spent eleven days on the psych floor.
When I came out, I did an inpatient program. I kept talking to people. These were all professionals. I kept saying, “I feel like I have PTSD from what I did.” Between trying to kill [myself] and getting violent, then having to look at all the people I love, and look at myself in the mirror every day knowing what I had tried to do… it really fucked with me.
Then, I Googled suicide attempts. I Googled “suicide survivor” because, to me, that’s what I was thinking. Everything that came up was support for people who had lost someone to suicide. I was like, “How is that possible that there’s nothing?” Then I added the word “attempt,” and there was still nothing. This was in 2011 or the beginning of 2012. I couldn’t believe it. I thought, “There needs to be something. Maybe someday I can do this and help other people.”
I talked to my therapist about it and they [said], “There’s probably some support groups.” I found nothing. I talked to my doctors about the PTSD symptoms I was having. They pretty much wrote it off as side effects or whatnot because, as of that point, I went back on the medication. I had to. I begged for it.
It wasn’t until I found Live Through This, which I believe I found in 2013, and I read what you wrote. It was almost verbatim what I had thought. I couldn’t believe someone else was doing something.
Des: I remember your email.
Michelle: It was almost like you spoke my mind. I was so thankful. All I could think was, “Thank you.” It’s been four years since my attempt and I’m still not me. I have moments, maybe a week here or there, but I am not me and I’m trying so hard to rebuild my life. That’s pretty much where I’m at.
Sharing my story was very powerful, I realized just a couple weeks ago. For the first time, I shared my story publicly. NAMI published it on their website and their Facebook, which was huge to me because that meant, “My god, someone’s listening and I’m making a difference.” All of a sudden, I got all these emails and messages. People [told] me their most private things.
I realized that I had been in private therapy since I was seven. Private therapy’s very self-focused. It forces you to look within and focus on yourself. I think I’ve reached a point where I’m not going to heal with myself. I think I need to share my story. It hit me, after I shared it, that I was getting needs met for myself but, at the same time, I was helping other people. It just hit me that this is what I need to do. This is my path. I feel like I have some momentum going. I want to continue it and help other people.
Des: It’s amazing how all you have to do is talk about it. So many people are helped by that.
Michelle: It’s scary to me that a lot of the people who aren’t responding to my posts are some of the closest people to me, and some of the people that have actually been affected by suicide, which shocks me. But it’s okay because, hopefully, the more people speak, the more people will realize how important it is.
All I can keep doing is keep sharing. Although I’ll stay in personal private therapy, I feel that this type of therapy is better. I don’t like groups. Group therapy, to me, can turn into a negative. For some people, they tend to dwell on the negatives in the behaviors and not what’s really important. That’s just my experience and my personal opinion. Sharing one-on-one is definitely more beneficial for me.
Des: Talk more about your feelings about medication.
Michelle: I have a love/hate [relationship] with medications. I’ve been on every SSRI there is. Cymbalta was the devil. I still call it the devil. Coming off of Cymbalta was one of the worst experiences I’ve ever had. The doctors still don’t acknowledge the withdrawal syndrome. I still, to this day, don’t know. I was convinced after my second attempt that part of it had to have been withdrawal syndrome. The doctors were telling me I was focusing too much on it and not focusing on why I was there. I’ve realized since then, regardless, I need something. Yoga and meditation isn’t enough for my brain.
I know I have a chemical imbalance. [Ed. note: Folks are moving away from the chemical imbalance conceptualization of mental health differences because it’s never been proven to be true. More info here.] I know I need something, but psychopharmacology is one of the only sciences that literally has no science behind it. There are no studies that have been proven. It’s not like heart disease where they’ve proven, without a doubt, that these medications work. They still don’t know how the brain works. It’s hard to trust a science or a doctor that tells you this is going to help when there’s no proof that it’s helped. SSRIs have been around for about twenty-five years and they don’t know the long-term effects. Now that I’m having the long-term effects, they’re starting to just now come out with studies that there are long-term syndromes associated with it, some negatives for being on it longer, and it can actually make things worse.
I’ve continually become more apathetic and I’m usually a very outgoing and energetic person. I’ve completely lost my energy. It’s very frustrating. The drugs that do help are drugs that doctors don’t like to prescribe because they’re addicting, like Klonopin. At this point, I don’t trust any medications, especially if they’ve just come out.
I have a lot of anger towards Big Pharma. Yes, I think medications are important. Yes, I think they help, if they’re the right medications at the right dose. I just think there’s not enough being done to research what those doses are. More needs to be done, and it makes me sick when I see antidepressants being marketed for menopause to help with hot flashes when, as someone who’s taken SSRIs, I know that they can actually cause hot flashes and panic attacks at times. I have a love/hate with it.
Des: I hate when they air antidepressant commercials, like the Latuda commercials right now. It should be illegal.
Des: Get the fuck off my TV. Are you kidding? We’re encouraging people to go to their doctor and be like, “I think I’m sad. Give me this pill.”
Michelle: Right. They don’t realize that they’re antipsychotics. The other thing is, so many doctors tell you that SSRIs are benign drugs. That they’re not dangerous. I’ve been telling friends for years. The first time I tried to come off Prozac was in 1996, and I didn’t know that you had to withdraw slowly. I just stopped taking it. Within three days, I was curled up in a ball in my bathtub hysterically crying and didn’t want to live.
At least they’re admitting there’s a withdrawal syndrome now. At least there are black box warnings. I told friends for years not to take them when they were pregnant because there had been no studies done.
I used to want to lobby against Big Pharma, but now that I’m stuck living with Big Pharma and have no choice, I would never want to tell someone with a mental illness or problems not to take the medication. I think that’s irresponsible. But I also think it’s irresponsible of doctors not to inform the patients of the dangers.
Des: Yeah, that puts the burden on the person who needs help to be a "good consumer."
Michelle: Right, be a compliant patient.
Des: Yeah. We all should be a good consumer, I guess, but we have this culture where we’re supposed to trust everything doctors say, and doctors are full of shit a lot of the time.
Michelle: Yes, I agree.
Des: Unless you’re lucky.
Michelle: I don’t think we should be good consumers. I think we should be educated consumers.
A lot of people come to me when they think, “Maybe I should take a medication.” The first thing I tell people is: if you’re having a life event that’s making you depressed, do not start a medication. If you feel like it’s a chemical imbalance, like this is you and innately part of your brain makeup, yes, look into it, but research it. Research, research, research.
Des: What was that website?
Des: Yeah, Crazymeds. It’s a great website. I looked up Lamictal. My doctor was like, “Here are the three I think you should consider,” and she did go through the pros and cons. I was like, “Give me the prescription but I’m not filling it until I do more research.” Crazymeds was the reason that I was like, “Okay, I think this doesn’t scare me,” you know?
Michelle: Right. That website has made a big difference for me too.
Des: Talk about how your mental health affects your art, if it does.
Michelle: I’ve always been artistic. I did art therapy as a patient for seven years as my form of therapy, which was amazing. It didn’t just put me in touch with my artistic side and make me comfortable with it, but I learned a lot about myself in the process.
I started a blog in 2009 where it was literally just that I wanted to start feeling comfortable. I was too self-conscious and insecure about art and the way I wanted to express myself with my art. I wanted to do it in an anonymous blog, so I could see if I could get myself comfortable with sharing it with the world. I named it Manic Mélange, which for me meant a wild array of tons of different things—a mixture of different types of art combined together so that I could find myself and find my artistic place of comfort. Of course, people took that as being manic. Eventually I had to change it. Now it’s Visual Mélange, but for many years, people thought it was a psychiatric condition.
I just slowly started taking photos, writing poems, and doing things like that. That is what really changed and made it possible for me to share. Then I started making jewelry and I utilized a lot of antiques and pieces that I would find in abandoned buildings.
Abandoned buildings are my place of solitude. When I’m in an abandoned building and taking photos, I’m in my happy place. It’s kind of like that place that I was trying to explain when I dance. It’s the introverted, special place where everything feels safe and I feel completely comfortable. It allows my creativity to really come out and feel things that I see. It’s very fulfilling to me to see something, photograph it, and have it come out the way I saw it because a lot of the places I go to are very dark. My favorite places are insane asylums. There’s a lot of pain in those walls, and I relate to that pain. Capturing it is really fulfilling. For other people to feel that emotion is very rewarding.
I know I’m in a deep depression when I can’t concentrate on my artwork. When you fall into those places where you feel stuck artistically, those are always scary places to be.
Des: Talk about what you were saying earlier with going back to the hospital that you had been in.
Michelle: God, that was very healing. One, a lot of the hospitals I go to still have patient records. I even went to one right after my hospitalization and it had current records, even though it was fully a digital record hospital when it closed. They still had paper records from 2009, so the people that were in there had their phone numbers, addresses, all their psych information, what brought them in... I couldn’t believe it. Once this building was demolished, they were just going to throw them out. Who knows who could see them?
I took as many as I could to shred because I felt so sorry [for] these are people who are still alive. When you go to the ones that were built in the 1800s and find a record, these people are deceased, so at least you’re not reading about someone who’s still alive and struggling.
My fear was, “Oh my god, what if they leave something behind about me?” They knew that this building was going to be demolished. They knew it was going to happen sometime in the near future after I was released. The summer after that they started demolishing it, I found a way in through the demolition site.
Three of my closest friends that knew what I had been through went with me. They let me go in first and just feel everything. My name was still written on the boards in some places. There were no records, but I think I just went in my room and took selfies flipping the bird. I basically took pictures all over of me flipping the bird. I got my anger out. I took some pretty great photographs of a very famous building. It was rewarding. It was a very powerful, powerful thing for me.
Des: Is suicide still an option for you?
Michelle: I’m not going to lie. I would say, in the past, having suicidal thoughts, they were just thoughts. Once I acted on those thoughts, it became an option. Right now, I’m on a path of wanting to help others. I’m gaining strength and momentum in doing that. So right now, I’d like to say no, it’s not an option. I can’t guarantee what I’ll say in six months or a year.
Des: Talk a little bit more about what made you decide you needed to start helping others.
Michelle: It’d been four years since my hospitalization and nothing was getting me out of my funk. I was just getting deeper in my funk and hiding. If I started sharing and talking, it would maybe help somehow. I started seeing other people. Your site inspired me tremendously, and reading Andrew Solomon’s book, The Noonday Demon, inspired me tremendously. I would say you and he are the two catalysts that gave me courage and made me realize that it was okay to share. Coming from a family of secrets, it was not an easy thing to do, but I did it. I feel better for doing so. I’ve had a lot of support, so I don’t regret it.
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.
Michelle'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 Rose Armstrong for providing the transcription to Michelle's interview, and to Sara Wilcox for editing.
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