Sabrina Strong is a suicide prevention advocate. She was 36 years old when I interviewed her in Albuquerque, NM, on October 07, 2014.
Sabrina: I am nine and a half years out from my suicide attempt.
Des: That's a long time.
Sabrina: I don't know how that happened. It's kind of a momentous thing.
Des: You'll have to have a party in six months.
Sabrina: In some ways, it feels like a big accomplishment. In some ways it's, "Well, what have I done with myself?"
I'm trying to think where I even begin, cause this was so long ago. It feels like this has been my whole life. I've thought about this a lot lately—at some point it would be nice to do something else, and have suicide not be my whole life.
The first time I got depressed, I was nineteen. It was the first time I knew there was something not right, but no one really knew what to do with me. It got bad by the time I was a junior in college.
I was with the same man the entire time I was in college. In retrospect, I put him through some really horrible things. I remember one day I actually took the safety razor apart in the bathroom, and realized that I couldn't actually cut myself, because [I don’t like] pain. I was so upset then, I couldn't get the thing back together. I sort of put it in a bunch and threw it back under the sink. I remember him coming out, going, "What is this?" I burst into tears and then he knew.
Transition periods are always tough. That transition from college to real life sucked. That relationship was ending and I knew once I left, we were not going to see each other again, which is pretty much what happened. I moved back home, had to go get a job. I had a really hard time getting a job because I didn't know what I wanted to do.
For a while, things were okay. I was being treated for another medical condition by using an anti-depressant, so I was getting a little boost from that. I thought I was better, but I didn't understand that I was being medicated. That worked for a while. Things were great. I was organized and I was great at work, but then the side effects got to be too bad. I was piling on weight. I didn't need [the medication] anymore because the other medical issues had resolved themselves. I said, "All right, I'm going to stop taking this." Then I started to slowly decompensate.
I hated my job, I hated everybody I worked with. I was doing case management for a psychosocial rehab program. Most of the folks on my caseload had schizophrenia or psychotic issues. They were great. The staff? I didn't know what their problems were. I loved my clients, but I hated working there, and I got picked on. They had a way of giving feedback that was incredibly harsh, and I would be shattered every single time.
Then, a really unusual opportunity presented itself. In our family, we would give scratch tickets for holidays. We’ve done it for years. I was living in Massachusetts through all this, where I was born. There's this magical place there called Vista Donuts that does more volume for lottery than you can ever imagine and, therefore, they have a lot of winners.
My mom comes back with two scratch tickets; she gives one to my dad and one to me. She's like, "Just do 'em. You can have them now."
So, they're chit-chatting. I'm scratching off my ticket. I'm looking at it and looking at it and thinking, "Is this real?"
Finally, I said, "Does anybody want to know what I won?" I'd hit for two hundred and fifty thousand dollars.
My mom's like, "No! No, no, no!" She looks at it, and she goes, "Oh my god." To my credit, I figured I'd have to split it, and they were like, "No, this is your money."
I quit my job and I went to graduate school. I was able to go to a school that I would not have been able to afford. I went to Boston University to get my Master's in public health. I moved out, bought furniture, and paid off my student loans, which never would have happened. It's funny, my mom will yell at me for talking about this more than talking about my suicide attempt. It ended up being just one of those random things. It was really cool for awhile, but it didn't fix all my other problems.
In the meantime, I had met a man online. It was a bad idea from the beginning, but I didn't know. I was twenty-four at that point. I was too stupid to understand that I should have let the opportunity pass me by. It's one of those things where you say, “I don't know if I would do that again...” There's a part of me still wishes we could skip it because it ended up being one of the worst things that happened to me.
He was very upfront about the fact that he was leaving the country in three weeks. I had just had my heart broken by somebody else. I said, "Okay, that's fine. Let's just have a fling. It'll be fun." We liked each other instantly, and immediately had a problem. We spent a lot of time together in those three weeks. Then he left. He was gone, except we were having a sort of long-distance thing going on because he would occasionally come back.
It was bad. What I didn't realize at the time, what I figured out later, and what he eventually copped to, was that he had a girlfriend back home in Germany. A girlfriend, the entire time, who he was cheating on with more than just me.
He was one of the last people I disclosed to, because I needed him to know. It was the last time I saw him. I needed him to know that I was not okay, and that he needed to let me go. He changed the subject. That was hard, and probably two years before I attempted, give or take. I never told anyone again after that. I was done talking to anybody, because that was so awful. Even then, he didn't take the hint. I still had to be the one to tell him to fuck off.
After being totally debt-free, I managed to rack up all my credit cards again, because I ran out of money. It wasn’t a lot of money. It sounds like it. Two hundred and fifty thousand sounds like a lot of money. After taxes, I saved some. Tuition to Boston University wasn't cheap. I think it was about forty thousand dollars a year. It took me two years to pay off student loans. I got used to having nice things because shopping was one of the ways I dealt with how bad I felt, because I was basically just a walking open wound all the time.
I just couldn't handle anything, even basic stuff, so if I could get through the day, it was because I was faking it all the time. Every single day, "I'm fine, things are fine. I'm great, I'm just tired. I'm okay." I put on a show for everybody, because I didn't want them know. It was embarrassing—I knew I wasn't right. I knew I wasn't okay. That was not the way everybody else lived their lives.
I had enough friends in my life with problems that we sort of commiserated, which was also probably not what I needed. A lot of them sort of drifted off. Someone I was very close to met a man, decided she didn't want to deal with me and my problems anymore, and just stopped talking to me.
Eventually, I had almost no friends because I always wanted to talk about how bad I felt, or, “I still miss this man,” or, “I hate my job, I hate my boss, I hate this, I hate that.” Nobody wanted to hear it because no one wants to deal with that. You become that person, and no one wants you around. You become an emotional black hole. Nothing makes it; you keep throwing all the positive reinforcement and anything into it, and it just goes nowhere. There is no bottom. The slightest anything would cause me to spiral out and be shutting the door, putting my head on the desk and crying, because I felt just awful.
I eventually graduated. How I made it through school, I do not know. I didn't make any friends. I have friends that go all the way back to elementary school, and I did not make a single friend in graduate school. I sat by myself. I would write. Everybody knew I was off. I was weird and it was a fancier school. A lot of people had family paying their way, people who had free time to hang out and have fun. I had a job, so I could have health insurance.
I was working in a group home at that point. I was doing overnights, [but] I was asleep overnight. The pay was crap, but it was money coming in, and again, I could have health insurance. So, I slept somewhere else four nights a week: Thursday, Friday, Saturday, and Sunday. So, when everyone's like, "You should come out with us!" Really? No.
I ended up picking up another part-time job doing pretty similar work, and filling in, because if I was working, at the very least—one, there's money coming in, and two, I couldn't think. [If I was] thinking, things went bad.
Up through that first year of graduate school, I was still going back and forth with this man over email. "Gonna be in Boston. I'd like to see you." I wasn't getting it at the time. Everybody got it, that was the worst part. Everybody understood. Just about everybody was afraid to tell me. Everybody knew I'd lost my goddamn mind, that he was no good. Everybody!
Around the time I started graduate school and things got really bad, I started going to talk to my primary care doctor about the fact that I was just not okay. I wasn't sleeping. I'd always had problems with insomnia, but it was getting out of control. I would just not sleep.
That's when we started with sleeping pills and Ambien. She started basically playing psychiatrist, which was not good for me. She didn't know psych meds well enough to be guessing as much as she did. She tried me on an SSRI for a long time. It really didn't do the job. I said finally, "I'm having side effects, but I'm not feeling happy. Can we be done with this?" She started eventually just medicating whatever symptoms I came through the door with.
What I didn't understand is that it was all depression. This is the many faces of depression, which people don't seem to get. They don't advertise that. That's really when we were into heavy direct-to-consumer advertising for antidepressants. My favorite one was the one about, "Depression hurts everybody," and they have a poor dog who doesn't get to go out and play, and I was like, "Yeah..."
I felt like that a good portion of the time, but also, I couldn't sleep, I was anxious all the time, and I would just drive and drive around. Every night I would drive, because I couldn't stand still, couldn't be with myself, I couldn't just be. Every night, no clue where I was going. I knew all the back roads for a fifty mile radius where I lived. Music, screaming and crying, and doing whatever.
I commuted to Boston for two years to school, and I would have days where I would cry all the way there. I’d think, "This is ridiculous. What am I doing?" I would get into the parking garage and I remember sitting there one day, saying, "Okay. Well, class starts at two. It's decision time. You either suck it up and go to class, or you turn around and go home and kill yourself, but now you have to make a decision, because we're here now."
[Then I’d think], "Okay, pull it together. Let's go."
Every day. Every day I fought that fight. "Aw, I'm just gonna go kill myself. I'm done." I always say the thing about depression: it just sorta takes everything. It slowly takes everything away. The last thing it tries to take is your life.
I'm an only child and one thing I've heard my entire life is, "I don't know what I would do if anything happened to you." I hung onto that for a long time because, at the very least, I could hear that voice in my head going, "Okay, this is where I have to stop, because I believe that. That makes perfect sense."
I'd say, probably about two years before I tried to kill myself, I started to convince myself that I was actually doing my parents a favor. If you tell yourself that lie long enough, you will start to believe it. They would understand by virtue of how desperate this act would be. They would understand, I was sure of that.
Which is so fascinating to me, doing this work now in suicide prevention and working with folks who are suicide [loss] survivors. The biggest question is always, "Why?" That's the question I'm asked is, "Why?"
[I’d say], "What do you mean, “Why?” ‘Cause life sucked. Isn’t it evident in what we tried to do, and what people have done?"
They're like, "No, I don't understand."
[I’d think], “How can you not understand? Doesn't that tell you everything you need to know? That you can't even conceive of how you could get that far down has to tell you how bad our lives are.”
But that's not how it works. I struggle always to explain it to people in a way, but the thing that I find interesting is how many people will talk about every other struggle they've had in their life. No matter what it is, they'll say, "But it's still better than being suicidal."
When I was in college as an undergraduate, I had ulcerative colitis. It went into remission. Within the year after my suicide attempt in 2005, I started to have a lot of GI problems. I started having weird allergy problems, and I was having weird, almost anaphylactic reactions to all kinds of stupid things. It eventually got so bad that I was running out of sick time at work—I was having to use vacation time. I would be in bed, disoriented. I couldn't think, I couldn't remember anything, my joints hurt, my head hurt, and I couldn't eat anything, virtually. I couldn't digest vegetables. My diet was so bizarre and out of control. Life really sucked for years.
Now that we've started to kind of piece some of it together, obviously something happened where trauma triggered some response that has either brought my ulcerative colitis out of remission, or triggered an irritable bowel syndrome, or some kind of weird autoimmune thing. Regardless, we're here now. I'm intolerant to basically every grain—wheat, corn, any of the alternative stuff. If it's a grain, my stomach just can't deal with it. I have weird allergies to most fruit, onions, peanuts, some tree nuts. Dairy is questionable. It's not always consistent because it's not my primary problem. It's a weird autoimmune thing that happens.
Even with all of that, it is still not as bad as being suicidal and wanting to die all the time. People always wonder how I coped with [GI problems]. I was like, "Because I've dealt with so much worse. You have no idea how much worse life can be. I'll take this. I will live like this. If this is the penance I have to do to never have to feel that way again, then I'll take it. If that's the deal on the table, I'll take it. Anything to not feel like that again.”
It got so bad, and I was so alone.
It's so weird. We have all these conversations about which states are doing better in terms of suicide prevention. It's a really weird conversation because New Mexico is really at the bottom in terms of per capita mental healthcare spending. Our mental health system was gutted recently. We now are third worst for suicide rates in the nation, but then people start talking about, "Oh, Massachusetts is a wonderful place," like it's magical, and I’m saying, "Yeah, and I tried to kill myself there." There still aren't people talking about it. Yes, they have number one in per capita spending and all these great, innovative things happening, but not where I was. I didn't have anybody that I knew of, and I was in the mental health field. The stigma in that is so intense. Who do you go to?
I graduated from school in 2004. I can't believe I made it through. I should have been really happy at my graduation, but I couldn't feel anything. It was a great thing, and I could fake being happy, but I couldn't feel what everybody else around me was feeling. My parents were proud, my grandmother was proud. She said, "Your grandfather would be proud of you," but I couldn't feel anything.
I had two jobs. I was working at the group home, and I had a new job that someone I knew had pulled me into, because I needed a public person with a public health background working on a federal grant. Both of those things ended up being disastrous.
We start the program. I'm doing the best I can. The community's totally dysfunctional, the group doesn't want to do anything, the program plan the person wrote the original grant for was totally unrealistic in every way. We were supposed to be getting technical systems from the State Department of Health Promotion. The woman who ran that program was such a bitch, and she had such a dominant personality that people either fell in line with her right away and worshiped the ground she walked on, or there was a problem. I was one of the people she had a problem with, and she made it her personal mission to let everyone know how incompetent I was at every chance she could possibly get.
At the same time, I'm working at the group home, and I start dating somebody that I'm working with. In the beginning, it was okay. I didn't really think it through. But, that was 2004. [I was] headed towards absolute disaster and I didn't care. I needed somebody. I needed something. In retrospect, I feel really horrendous about that. I think, honestly, at one point he might have saved my life.
There was a night where things got really bad. I was writing a suicide note, and that was when it was so much cheaper to just get your medication [in large quantities]. What I had on me would have done the job.
The worst part is when I talked to my doctor about it. I was like, "Well, I got [a lot of] pills."
She said, "Oh, that won't do anything. This other thing that you're taking, however, we'd have a problem with that."
I actually do training with physicians [now], and I say, "Please don't do this." They're so used to doing patient education, they don't think before the words come out of their mouths. Don't tell me what will do it and what won't.
I got so upset writing the note, I ended up calling him instead. He talked me through it, and it was okay. At some point I realized that we were totally incompatible. We were too different. We got along fine. It was sweet and fun, and then I realized we didn’t have the same value system. It was not going to work. I broke up with him, and I felt like I broke his heart. It was right before Christmas, because I'm a bitch. He started writing me letters. He'd send one every day. I just stopped opening them because I felt so horrible.
Somewhere around that time, my doctor had the brilliant idea that maybe I had some kind of bipolar disorder because of the mood swings which, in retrospect, was stupid and ridiculous, but she didn't know what she was looking at. She medicated whatever I came in with. I got anxious, I got agitated, but I don't get manic. My mother might disagree with that, but...
I definitely never felt good. I definitely knew something was wrong when it was happening. It's that agitation that comes with being suicidal that I recognize in other people. Most everybody knows that feeling like you can't calm down. You can't stop. You're in it. When I see it in other people, it scares me. It's like, "Okay, we're gonna sit and we're gonna wait for you to come down." I remember every time that's happened where it was almost an action, and it's scary and terrifying every single time. You don't forget that.
So, my doctor had this brilliant idea. There was a new medication at the time which no one was going to pay for because it was only a combination of two meds, so she put me on Prozac and Zyprexa. That was my first experience with antipsychotics, and I became a zombie. I was not psychotic, but I think taking antipsychotics is the closest I will ever come to experiencing that feeling.
When I was still working with people who had psychosis, I felt bad every single time I had to hand them Zyprexa. Now I realize why you don't want to take it. That shit's awful. It's just awful. I would just sit and zone out. I would fall asleep on the couch, drooling. Side effects were so bad that I was so out of it, but at least I felt better… and they had convinced me that I was bipolar, so I was obviously screwed up beyond belief. "Just take your pills and shut up."
I finally quit the group home, which was good. I don't have to deal with the wreckage of breaking this poor guy's heart, which is good because, of course, as much as he drove everybody nuts there, he's such a sweet guy. It's sort of like kicking a puppy. I kind of knew I would not be welcomed back there, so I was glad I didn't have to show my face again.
At my other job, it was time to reapply for a federal grant. I'd never written a grant before, much less a federal application, which is the most complicated grant you can possibly do, and I was getting no help. I didn't know how to ask for help. I had this horrible woman from the State Department telling everybody how horrible and incompetent I am, and here comes the deadline. I don't have anything, and I'm not really with the program.
At this point, I'm not sleeping. I have built up a fantastic tolerance to sleeping pills because one doesn't work anymore. I needed up to three to get any sleep. It was wintertime. It was the end of March. I don't actually remember the exact day, I kinda guesstimate every year. A week or so before my birthday, everything came together.
I hadn't done anything. I had brainwashed myself to believe I was doing everybody a favor. This deadline is coming up, my finances are a mess, my apartment's a mess, my life is a mess, and I'm high on sleeping pills because that's what I would do. That's a problem I developed years before, where I realized that if I took one before I went to sleep sometime, it would do this thing where my emotions would just shut off.
It was the only peace I had, ever, and if you mixed [the medication] with a bottle of cheap wine, you could ride that feeling out for a few hours. It was the only peace of mind I ever had, and I knew better than to tell anybody that—that's how you get your sleeping pills cut off. That's how people start doing an intervention. At that point, I didn't know that there was an intervention to be had.
I had to move the year prior because my apartment flooded. I had no insurance, so I lost basically everything I didn't pull out in the first two or three days. I had to start again. I was living in a place where I was basically by myself all the time. I had the nights to myself, so I could be as loud and weird as I wanted to be. I had the whole house to myself.
It was the weirdest thing. We'd kinda found it by accident because a friend, who actually was the woman who sold my parents their house, worked for an agency that had this three-story house. Their office was on the first floor, an engineering firm was on the second floor, and an apartment to rent was on the third floor. I ended up at the apartment, but to get in and out, I had to walk through somebody's business all the time. It was so bizarre. After five, six o'clock, everybody was gone, and I had this creepy house to myself.
The music is blasting, I'm totally jacked up on Ambien, and numbed out on antipsychotics. I just said, "I'm done. I'm disconnected enough that I'm aware enough to be able do it, but I'm checked out enough that I won't talk myself out of it." I took every single pill I had. It wasn't a lot, so I figured, "Well, then I have to take everything. I don't have enough of anything. We're just gonna take it all."
Music was on, I was drinking, and then I blacked out. At one point, I remember lying on my bed and hallucinating. Because of a certain combinations of medication I had taken, you get what's called serotonin syndrome, and that's when you start to see things. I was lying on my bed, watching things come out of my closet. My apartment had either mice or rats—they never did find anything—but I could hear them scratching at night, so I think I was hearing the noises and my brain was filling in the blanks of things just coming out. Then I saw a snake come out of my closet, and bats.
The next thing you know, I'm on my kitchen floor and I can't get up. I keep trying to get up, because I realize what's happened. I know where I am. My very first thought is, "Oh shit, I'm alive." My second thought is, "No one can know about this." I don't even know where I am, what day or what time it is, what's going on. I can't even get up, but I knew—no one can ever know about this.
I keep trying to get up, but I can't because I have no motor control whatsoever. Every time I fall, I fall down on my knees. A good six, eight inch section of both knees were just solid bruises by the end of that night. I don't know how many times I fell down. Maybe half a dozen.
I would get enough traction, and then I would lose all control and slam all my body weight down. I didn't feel anything and I didn't realize I was still high. Of course, there's work going on [downstairs]. They told me later, "You know, we heard you. We thought you were moving furniture or something." Which was fine—I would’ve been horrified if anybody had come and seen that.
I finally managed to come out of it at five or six o'clock at night, maybe closer to seven. The engineering firm is gone. I can stand up, but I'm still high and I don't know it. It's at least twenty hours later. I throw on some clothes and my eyes are as big as saucers. I'm bleeding out of one knee because I don't know what I did here. I broke something or fell on it.
I go downstairs, and the woman who runs the real estate agency is still there. I would [usually] go down and talk to her because she was my landlady, and we would just chitchat. I didn't realize that I wasn’t normal and that I wasn’t okay. I start talking to her and telling her about the things I was hallucinating because I felt like she needed to know that we needed an exterminator.
She said, "Are you taking any medication?"
Now, I don't understand what I'm presenting as. I don't understand that what I saw was a hallucination, but I still have enough sense to lie. I say, "Well, I had a migraine, so I took a couple migraine pills." That was sort of, kind of true.
She says, "That's nice. What's your mother's telephone number?" I'm stuck, but I tell her because I think, "Okay, this will be fine." She tells my mother, who lives five minutes up the road, "Something's not right. She's got a migraine. She's not okay," and my parents show up.
My mom takes one look at me, with my eyes as big as saucers, and says, "We're going to the emergency room."
I say, "Okay, I'm just gonna go upstairs and get my bag."
She says, "You get in the car right now."
I think, "Oh shit. Okay, I think I can pull this off. I can do this. They don't have to know. I don't know what to do now. I'm sort of stuck."
Between the ride from there to the emergency room, during the waiting, the whatever… my mom's still not getting it. I sit down with the triage nurse and she asked, "What happened?"
I spilled everything. I said, "I took all my pills."
I mean, I've got scratches all over one wrist. I'm bleeding out of one knee. I'm bruised, I'm beaten, and just a mess. I couldn't come up with a reasonable explanation. I just started to talk because I didn't have enough sense to not, and then things started to happen. They got me a room right away. I didn't realize it at the time, but my mom told me later that we had a guard outside the room.
I think I had the most amazing, heartfelt conversation with my mother ever, and I can't remember ninety-five percent of it because I was so high, which sucks. She said, "Why?"
I just said, like, "Everything. I'm done. I'm tired, and I'm tired of feeling like that. I'm tired of everything. I can't sleep. I can't do anything."
Then the social worker comes in and they give me two choices, which I actually can't even interpret because I'm so high. My mom told me later, "To your credit, it's a good thing you knew you needed to go somewhere."
What [the social worker] said was, "You can go to respite or you can go to inpatient," and I literally heard, "You can go to respite or you can go do outpatient."
I said, "Inpatient sounds good to me."
They were starting to make arrangements and it finally dawned on me what I'd agreed to. My mom said, "But you knew."
I said, "I did not. I didn't want to go do that!" I knew I was too embarrassed to say I really just didn't know what was going on to say, "Can I change my mind?"
Because, of course, now I'm going to the local psych hospital, which has so much stigma. There was a joke, like, "You're gonna end up here. You're gonna end up at Fuller."
"Oh, look. I'm at Fuller. I am crazy."
But I've also been doing all this work with these rehab programs, there's still a good chance I could end up in the hospital with one of my clients or my former clients. I was so terrified the entire time. Every time someone new would come in, I'd be afraid it would be somebody that I knew, and then they’d go back and say, "You'll never guess who I saw at the hospital. She finally cracked up. We knew she was crazy, but we didn't know she was that crazy."
I didn't really start to sober up until I was in the ambulance. It was the longest ambulance ride ever, and nobody talks to you. There's two paramedics and they both ignore you. They talk to each other, and you're strapped down and have no idea what's going to happen because they literally have to wheel you in to the locked ward. You've really done it this time.
It was about 2 A.M. [when I arrived]. Thankfully, the woman who worked the night shift was so nice. She brought me a sandwich, and then I got a room assignment. I just laid awake and stared because that's when I was really starting to sober up.
Everything was starting to hurt. They had pretty much just slapped a bandage on me and said, "Oh, that wound is fine."
I was like, "Um, but what about the giant fucking bruises that I have?"
[They said], "It's soft tissue damage, it'll be fine."
It's still not fine, by the way.
My mom's perception of it, because she was more aware of all of these things, was that, "Seriously, the second they knew that you had done this to yourself, they couldn't get away from you fast enough. They just wanted to throw a bandage on it, be done with you, and hand you off to the social worker."
Which is something we've actually heard of a lot: it's hard for emergency department staff to understand how to deal with people who are in accidents and victims of violent crime, and then you're the idiot who comes in who did it to yourself. They look at you and go, "Really? We don't have time for you."
I spent about four days in the hospital. The first two days I didn’t really sleep. I laid awake and looked at the cinder block walls, because I wasn’t getting any sleeping meds. In retrospect, that was the best thing that could have happened, because I broke that addiction. I refused to go back. I actually slept the third night. I started to get a normal sleep rhythm, which was so nice. It felt like I hadn't slept in years. They stopped the antipsychotics, which was really nice. They kept the Prozac.
I read a lot. My parents kept bringing me books. They came to see me. They were really great, which was kind of surprising, and so interesting.
I try to talk to my mom a little bit about it. It's hard for her, and it took me a long time to even grasp the trauma for her, because she's still there. She's always trying to remind me that this will never go away for me. She still doesn't understand. I finally realized that I'm not going to ever make her understand all the things that came together that went wrong. She starts to see little pieces of that and she gets nervous. It's like, "Oh, you're not sleeping. I know what happens when you're not sleeping."
"Okay! Let's, uh… let's not do this. I'm fine.”
We went through this phase where my phone had died over a long weekend, and I didn't realize it. I finally charged it up and turned it on, and I had three messages from my mother, with each of them getting increasingly like, "I'm about to send your father over [there].” I get a lot of welfare checks every once in a while. It's my joke—she just wants to know I'm okay.
I tell this story all the time when I do training. I remember being in the hospital. I don't know what happened. I'm still in the emergency room. I was trying to get my mom to tell me the other day, and she wouldn't fess up to it, but I feel like she must have pulled my dad aside, and said, "Goddamn it, we almost lost that kid, so you go in there and you tell her that you love her," because my parents came in. They were crying. My dad was crying. He was hugging me, telling me he loves me. I'm thinking, "Who the hell are you?" We don't do this in my family. We're not touchy-feely people.
We're crying and hugging, and I remember realizing how badly I had miscalculated their understanding, and how they didn't understand that I was trying to do them a favor. I was so far gone in my own head that I had convinced myself of that. I realized how badly I had misjudged that, and that maybe I wasn't really seeing things as they were. It's incredibly jarring, and the only way I can explain it to people is to say, "No, you convince yourself."
I managed to get out of the hospital and immediately moved back home. We made up a story about me having a bad medication reaction and falling. That's the story we went with for a long time. I didn't really want to keep doing that forever, but I was too out of it to have an opinion about anything.
It took me a good month to even have an opinion about the fact that I was alive. I don't know, it's one of the things that bugs me. People get frustrated or they don't understand how they should be feeling. They don't understand why they don't feel, like there's this feeling that you should be so excited to be alive, and it's like, "This is not a Christmas movie. This is not that kind of thing; it doesn't happen like that."
You had a trauma, you go into shock, and you can live there a good, long while. To be honest, that was the first peace I'd had.
I hear this all the time from people. They say, "How do I break somebody out of there?"
I say, "Leave them. They have some peace and quiet. If they've tuned out, if they've gone numb—perfect."
I remember that being the calmest time. I couldn't understand how or why it had happened, but I was just really relieved to have had it happen, relieved that I wasn't feeling anything.
They managed to find me a psychiatrist. It took a little work because they said, "Oh, what kind of insurance do you have?"
I told them, "My mom used to work here, and I used work here, so the two major counseling agencies are out.”
They found me a place in Rhode Island. I drove down to Providence, got to see a nurse practitioner, and she was amazing. We talked about sleep and she said, "We can give you something that's an antidepressant, and it will help you sleep." I was on a fairly higher dose of Prozac. They were decreasing one and increasing the other, and I walked in the office one day, and she said, "How do you feel?"
I said, "I feel really good."
She said, "Great, we're gonna stop right there. These are your meds."
I said, "Okay!" I was having feelings that were even positive. I'd kind of thought, "Okay, it's a good thing."
I was floundering on my own, so I moved back home. I was saving money, so I was starting to pay all my debt. With a week to go, everybody realizes that I need an extreme amount of help with this grant. We pull together and pull an all-nighter. We submit it. We get it done.
It initially gets rejected. I'm okay with that because my dad had a job offer in New Mexico and my mom had been putting pressure on me to come with them. I said, "Okay, maybe this is just the thing," but I think, "Am I going to have a job?" I don't know.
My agency decides they want to keep me, so they absorb me into other departments and let me kick around. A friend of a friend has another grant-funded program. They picked me up part time, too. So, that grant position ends, but all of this is part of a bigger political issue on the federal level, where this particular grant program moved from one funding agency to another, which promptly changed eligibility requirements and defunded about a hundred communities. It didn't go over well. They didn't have enough money to undo what they had done. To appease people, they funded their top six grantees, because I think that's what they had left.
Since we had written one of the best applications, we got our money back. This friggin' application that almost killed me, that we pulled out of our asses—they scored out of a hundred, and we had a ninety five. It was good. Not only did we pull it out, but they got to keep their money.
I realized I could actually write a federal grant, but I had enough separation at that point to know I had a new start coming. My dad had already left, because he had to come to New Mexico to get set up. It was the world's longest move—my mom was really into it until it actually had to happen.
I started saving money. We came out to visit and I fell in love, which is what happens. They don't call it The Land of Entrapment for nothing. People come on vacation, and they just get caught up.
At that point, I said, "Okay, I need to be away from everybody who saw this slow nine year descent into total insanity." Very few people knew at that time, so I get a new place to live. I get this new start. Eventually, I deal with my debt, get it somewhat sort of under control; it's an ongoing process.
After I’d been living here a few years, this man tracks me down. I ignore him for a while.
Des: The German?
Sabrina: The German. I ignore him for about six months, and finally, I can't. It's still on my mind. I said, "What? What do you want?"
He wanted to apologize.
I said, "What the hell? That was the shittiest thing you could have done. You ignored me. I told you how bad I was doing and that I wanted to kill myself. I needed you to know that you needed to let go. Hang in or let go."
He said, "I honestly don't even remember that conversation. You know, I was not doing that much better. I was so self-destructive. It wasn't just you."
I had figured out there was obviously somebody else. I flat out asked him, and he said, "Well, that's what I'm trying to tell you… I had a girlfriend the entire time."
There were obviously other women. I didn't ask. I didn't need to know. He continued self-destructing long after that. He ended up in therapy and on medication, and then spent all this [time] finding people and basically making amends. I was the last holdout on his list because I'm that damn stubborn. He had finally met somebody he was going to get a second chance with, and he wanted to get on with it.
I eventually tracked down the other guy I dated, to apologize to him. Believe it or not, I'm Facebook friends with all these people now. He had no hard feelings.
All of these problems that were so awful—some of them took years, but every single thing I was dealing with ended up resolved eventually. It seems so stupid. How tragic and pointless it would've been. But you can't know that. At the time, driving all this is that, mentally, you're not okay. It's not just the things that happen—it's the thing after the thing after the thing, and you're not mentally stable enough to handle the first two or three things, but it just keeps piling on.
Within a year of my attempt, I'm in New Mexico. About two or three years after that, I get connected to the Suicide Prevention Coalition, because I always knew I wanted to tell my story.
When I was in high school, I was a peer health educator. I talked about HIV and teen pregnancy, and if they needed sex advice, everybody knew to come to me. I could teach it better than the teachers. Through senior year, I always did an event for World AIDS Day. My senior year, I brought pieces of the NAMES Project AIDS Memorial Quilt, which was just amazing. I never have shied away from [being vocal], but I remember people always kinda saying, "Why this?"
I was a huge Queen fan. I still am. Freddie Mercury had passed away from AIDS, and that was sorta my driving force. It's been interesting because Brian May, their guitarist, who has had lifelong struggles with depression, was the first person I knew that talked about it. I remember thinking how cool that was, and how much I needed that—[for] the person whose picture hangs on the wall to talk about what you can't. People weren't talking about it, and he would just talk. He had this total mental breakdown, he was suicidal, he ended up having to check himself into rehab, and he just told everybody! That's nuts! I've written to him over the years, and he's actually written me back, which is really cool. I met him a few times now. You couldn't have a better hero.
I realized that that helped me, and I don't even know this person. I need to start talking, because I don't have a fear of this. I don't have a fear of saying anything, actually. Someone needs to start talking about this because there are all these people feeling by themselves, and the isolation drives you nuts. Thinking about what it felt like to be in that situation, the thing I remember is how alone I felt. Like [I was] closed in on myself all the time and nobody understood.
The people who knew didn't know what to do, or didn't care. I think they didn't know what to do. It felt, at the time, that they didn't care… because you can't interpret things the right way, you're just by yourself. You don't understand that everybody else is feeling the way that you feel.
I remember all the time thinking, "I don't have symptoms that match up with the TV commercials, so I'm depressed plus I'm crazy. My behavior is so out of control—just driving around, roaming around, all hours of the night, not sleeping, drinking, and abusing prescription meds. This is not normal.”
I didn't understand the agitation I had, or the psychache. The first time somebody explained psychache to me, I almost fell out of my chair, because that's what I felt like. It hurt. It just hurts to exist, and I talk about it all the time now to explain to people that it just hurts.
Stop asking people, "Why?"
If you ask somebody why, you'd better be prepared to sit for a couple hours with somebody, because it's not simple. People don't come to these decisions lightly. It is not a decision you make just once. You make it over and over and over again. You're always bargaining, and you're always weighing your options. You're always ambivalent. I try to explain ambivalence to people. You're always there all the time, because you want everything to be okay.
I fought hard for my life. I didn't just give up after nine years and way too many drugs, way too many bad life decisions, and way too many shitty people. You don't just decide to do it one day. You decide and then you change your mind, and you decide again and you change your mind. You can hang onto that. The option's always there on the table.
Probably three years ago, when I started to do really serious peer recovery work, I said, "If this is what I'm going to do, then suicide needs to come off the table. It's no longer an option. You made your bed." In a way it's actually helped to have that. I've embedded myself enough that I know what people would feel like. I'm too connected to people now that it's not an option.
It's not that I don't feel it. The past year has been rough. I think it's just forward progress. I did so much of the work, and at some point, I did stop because I was actually doing really well. I kind of just outgrew therapy, and learned how to feel bad without the whole world coming undone.
It was time to do the really hard stuff. For a while, I came off my meds. I made it six months because I got real feelings again. I'd forgotten what those felt like. It was time. They were doing more harm than good at that point. I'd packed on a good seventy to eighty pounds from side effects. I was emotionally blunted enough that it was kind of allowing my personal relationships to be unhealthy, and then I kinda woke up and went, "Oh my god! You suck, you're an asshole. No wonder I'm unhappy."
I walked away from a few people, which was hard. That hurt a lot more than I thought it would because in my mind, they were part of my support system. Mostly, they sucked and they were inconsistent, but in my head I had these people I could go to.
It's been a strange year. Forward progress is scary. I've really gotta know that in advance, because that's not a very good reward. They need a better reward system for feeling better than, "Oh, you can feel miserable again now. Good! Oh, okay. This is what feeling sad really feels like."
Des: Robin Williams died recently, and working in the suicide prevention field, sometimes you feel forced to comment. What response do you give when a high-profile person dies by suicide?
Sabrina: I have nothing to say, except that any time you need me, you come find me. Anytime. This sucks. I know how much it sucks. I can't possibly know what you're going through, but I know what this feels like. You come find me, or call somebody. Do something. Fight, because I know you want to fight.
Usually what I do is try to appeal to people's sense of hope because there usually is always something about, "Well, maybe tomorrow could be different." I always tell people, "No one should ever have to die in despair, alone, because they couldn't get what they needed."
Most people want to live. If you want to live, you should be able to find a way. There is this assumption in the suicide prevention field that we don't want to live, that we don't value our lives, or that somebody needs to do something for us—and they do—but there's a total discounting of how much we do for ourselves. We're actually the ones who keep us alive. There's no one going home with me at night to make sure I don't try to kill myself. Even if they are, you only need a few minutes by yourself. I have to do it all on my own, just like anybody else.
If anybody knew [the amount of energy it takes to fight with yourself], they would just go lie down and take a nap. I always tell people, "No one fought harder for my life than me." I saw my doctor, at the most, a half hour at a time. I talked to friends, at the most, a couple hours at a time. I stuck with this bullshit in my head every second that I was awake. I did everything I knew how to do.
Sabrina: The ten year mark is going to be emotional because it's sort of like the end of an era, I guess. I almost didn't make it to twenty-seven. I celebrated my twenty-seventh birthday with my mother—that was it—because I had no friends. I had nobody. My dad was gone. He was out here already, doing something, and it was just the two of us, kinda realizing that I almost didn't make it.
Nine years was a big deal, because it was like, "Nine years of suffering, nine years of recovery." Now I’m into more recovery than suffering. Now, it's like, "Well, what do I want the next decade of my life to be? Because now, I’m going to be thirty-seven." I don't know. Some days, that bothers me, and some days, it could be anything, you know? Could be anything.
I don't know where I'll go from here. I try to remember that, usually once a week, I get something from somebody that says, "Thank you so much for sharing." I mean, our website is so out of date. I haven't had time to look at it. I feel guilty every single day, but people are still saying, "Thank you so much, because I felt like I was the only one." [In the suicide prevention field], we forget because we found each other, but there are some people out there who are by themselves, all over the world. I've gotten emails from Australia, England, Iran…
Des: Every single day.
Sabrina: Just somebody. We need that connection with each other. I don't know where I'm going, but I know that this next part of my life has to be more connected.
For a long time, I felt like I wasn't. Then I spent some time, actually. I pulled out all my ten-years-ago music—my Linkin Park, my Evanescence, and my everything. I could remember, because those are my triggers. I remembered how alone I was, how hard school was, how shitty my friends were, and how awful this man was to me.
I realized, “You know what? I am in a really easy graduate program. I am not coming unglued, I'm just busy. I have amazing friends that I could go to who will not let me fall down. That is my new bottom.”
I don't want to admit [when I need help] to people, but if I have to, it's because it's out of necessity, and they will drop everything to do what needs to be done. My parents know what's up, and they try to stay connected to me. I have a great doctor. I have a therapist I can always go back to. I even met a decent guy. Nothing about my life is the same as it was then. It's gonna be okay.
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.
Sabrina'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 Andy Dinsmore for providing the transcription to Sabrina's interview, and to Sara Wilcox for editing.
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