Sarah Page is an artist who works in the mental health field, providing assistance for those with developmental disabilities. She was 25 years old when I interviewed her in Eugene, OR, on July 31, 2014.
It's been an ongoing thing for as long as I can remember. I think the first time I really recognized what I was feeling as depression, or something “wrong,” was probably when I was 15. My first suicide attempt [was during high school]. It was probably exacerbated by hormones, and that’s when I was experimenting with drugs with my friends. I was in a more volatile state at that point in my life.
When it happened, I was put into a psych ward for kids for about two weeks. Originally, the doctors said, "Oh, you're a kid. You're on these drugs. It's hormones. You're changing. You're growing up. You're just having trouble processing these feelings. It's situational depression," but even though it was situational depression, they pumped me with all these medications.
Then I just stopped feeling everything for about a year. It was a weird process. I remember feeling kind of stuck in my head, like nothing had really changed. I could still remember [the depression] and kind of feel it—it just wasn't as much of that pitter-pattery feeling in my chest.
I remember being 16 and really confused about how I was feeling. I decided that I wasn't going to take my meds anymore, so I stopped. By the time I was 17, I had the feeling like, "This isn't situational. I'm still feeling like this. People have come, people have gone, but the only constant is... this.” It was the way I felt.
I started drawing instances from when I was even younger and feeling this way—out of place and alone against many. I'm really meticulous, so I got my paper pads and my pens out [to write down] every time I'd felt like this before. It was a pretty long list. I kept trying to go further and further back.
[The first time I could remember] was around second grade. We were swimming, everyone was off splashing alone by themselves, and I came into the house crying.
I was like, "I have an inner tube. If I have an inner tube, everyone else is going to want inner tubes. I'm going to go out there and be like the queen of the ball."
I went out there with my inner tube, they all flocked to me, and I remember thinking, "Oh, yeah. This is the life."
As soon as the inner tube was gone, I realized, "Oh, it's just because I have this inner tube."
I don't know. It made me feel really wrong inside. That is probably the earliest memory I have of just feeling wrong. That's probably the best word I could use to describe it. There have been so many people I have spoken to—counselors and doctors and stuff—and they always say something different:
"Oh, it's depression."
"It's double depression."
"Oh, it's PTSD."
All these different things.
"It's anxiety. They're all related."
"Oh, they are not related at all. They're all separate things, and if you take care of that, this will go away."
Then other people are saying, "No, they're all woven together and need to be taken care of together."
I feel like no one really understands, so the term I feel most at ease saying is “wrong”—like everything just feels wrong.
Sarah: I mean, when you try to make an appointment to see a therapist or something, they say, “I'm sorry, you're not already an established patient? We'll get back to you in four months."
I'm like, "Okay. Well, I need to see somebody now." They'll shoot off a list of phone numbers, and of course I'm like, "I don't want to get out of bed." Most of the time, [my husband] makes the phone calls for me because I'm in a ball, like, "Fuck everybody. I'm not doing this today, or ever again." Then, of course, they don't want to talk to him, but if I get on the phone, all I'm gonna do is start crying, and they're going to say, "Call us when you feel better," and I'm like, "When I feel better, I'm not going to call you because I feel better."
I feel like it's just this circle of silly stuff. They're booked so far out in advance, and they don't take many people. It shows me that there are so many people who are dealing with this stuff, but you don't hear about it. So, when I'm sitting here and there’s people walking by, it's like, "I wonder who feels. I wonder if there's someone else who feels the same way I feel.” [That] type of thing, but you don't see it.
Of course, if you do wanna talk about it, then people are like, “Oooh. You have issues..."
“Well, you know what? You have issues, too. You just don't talk about it.”
There's nothing wrong with talking about it.
Des: What led up to your first attempt?
Sarah: I was with my best friend. My parents were out of town. I’d just found out that my boyfriend at the time was arrested. He was always doing stupid things, so he got arrested. That night was fun—I had her, she was my best friend, and it was going to be okay. We celebrated it; we partied that night. My parents were out of town, she was staying the night, we were getting into all sorts of trouble and just having fun.
The next day, I found out that her mom took her to Brat Camp—you know that show Brat Camp? It was based in Montana? She went there. She was sent there. They just took her. No warning, no nothing. She was gone for like the next year and a half. My world was completely and utterly shaken.
I think that if something like that were to happen now, I'd be more like, "Okay. Breathe, Sarah." You learn these coping mechanisms—but then, I didn't have any.
Everyone was taken away from me. My parents were gone. The only ones there were my brother and his friend. As soon as I found out [she was gone], I dropped the phone, went into my stepdad’s cabinet, and everything I could find was going down my mouth. My brother and his friend found me laying on the floor. I have glimpses of my brother’s friend sticking his fingers down my throat, calling the ambulance, and being carried down. Then I was in the psych ward for two weeks. That’s when they told me it was situational depression.
Des: How many attempts have you had?
Sarah: I think four or five.
Des: Were you hospitalized every time?
Sarah: No. Once I became an adult, [I was hospitalized]. There was a long time after my first attempt that I didn't attempt at all. How I made logic of it was that [my outpatient therapist] asked me, "Please don't do that. Just don't do it. Will you just promise me you won't do it?" No one had ever asked me not to do that before. So I didn't, and I took that promise for the next couple of years.
It felt like things kept getting worse and worse. I probably didn't have my second, third, and fourth attempts until the last three years. The last three years have been exceptionally chaotic. I don't remember every time I had an attempt.
The first time was sloppy. The second time I was sure to not be as sloppy. [My husband and I] had gotten in a fight. We were talking on the phone maybe a couple of hours before my second adult attempt. He didn't like where I was when we got off the phone, so he called the police. They came to my home while I was [prepared to attempt]. They took me away then.
[My husband] was at work. He works the same shifts as I do, so he's gone for three nights at a time. Probably, that three day alone time kind of worsened things for a little bit but, had he not known me and my patterns so well, it probably would have gone off without a hitch.
[The cops] pulled me out. I remember the way the police officers were looking at me and talking to me. I know I had a knife in my hand, but as soon as they came in, I let it go. I know how the cops are. I didn't want them to think I was going to be aggressive towards them, so I just complied [with] pretty much everything… They treated me like dirt.
When I went in, the doctor was talking down to me: "We had someone come in here tonight who was attacked. They're in here, they didn't ask to be in here, and yet here you are."
I didn't say anything the entire time I was there. By the time they had the psych person come in to talk to me, I was like, "I don't know. I don't know." I had a guilt complex. I already blame myself for every little thing. I don't need you coming in here like, "What's wrong with you? How could you?" I remember that feeling, that they just didn't care.
Afterwards, I spoke to the psych person and they were like, “Well, you're not insured, there’s nothing we can do, really. Here's a list of numbers again."
I'm like, "Okay. Well, I've had this list of numbers. You give me this list of numbers all the time. I don't feel comfortable speaking on the phone. I'm terrified of the phone.”
Sarah: There have been instances where I felt I was in crisis. I didn't try anything, but I went to the crisis place and said, “Help me." Again, same thing. They just gave me the numbers. They're like, "Oh, I'm sorry we can't help you.”
“Do you have sliding scale?"
"No, I don't have sliding scale."
I find a place that does have sliding scale: “When can you get me in?”
“I can't do six months.”
My last attempt was actually in November. I was feeling really depleted of everything. It was a night before I had to go to work, so I know that was daunting me. I was like, "I am just done..."
We ended up going to the emergency room that night, and afterwards they said, "Okay, you've come to crisis several times before. Here's what we can do. We'll give you six sessions."
I was like, "Thank you so much!”
I don't know why it took so many attempts. There were three attempts to that point, and two times where I actually reached out to the Linn County Mental Health crisis center. The response beforehand had always been, "You don't have insurance." Then I got these six free sessions with one of their therapists and I was elated.
Really, that's all I wanted—to talk to someone, to have someone listen to what I was saying, and just reaffirm, "You're not crazy." The guy I saw was great. I've had issues with people I had spoken to in the past, [but my initial response to him] was that he looked and sounded like John Malkovich. It made me feel a little more comfortable. He was the first person I had spoken to who listened and didn't try to get me to take a bunch of vitamins. I had gotten that before.
Another thing I had issues with before is that I'll be talking, and they'll come to their own conclusions about things I didn't even say. I don't like it, so I shut down and don't say anything the rest of the time. Then they're trying to analyze me like, "You're being quiet now. That means…" No, actually that means you're stupid and I don't wanna talk to you if you're going to be like that.
This guy was great. I talked, he talked, and he actually said things that didn't upset me. At the end of our sessions, I was like, "My six months with my employer just kicked in. I have insurance now. Can I just stay with you?"
They said, "No, because Kaiser Permanente has their own pool of people that they go through."
We had our last session together, and he gave me all this advice for looking for a new therapist. He said, "Give them a chance. Give them more than one session, and call Kaiser in February. It's going to be another three months before anyone can see you.”
"But I have insurance now. I'm giving you money. This is the only reason that I want insurance. Please let me see somebody." They had me do this whole [questionnaire], all these questions that I've answered so many times before, over and over again. After three months, I called and answered the same questions over again. They actually referred me out to two separate places. The first place was booked out for a month, but they were really, really rude. They asked me the questions again and were very rude to [my husband and I], so I said no. They referred me to another place, where I answered the same questions again. In the past six months, I have answered the same questions multiple times.
Des: Do you have a therapist yet?
Sarah: I do not. I just saw one two weeks ago, and she was nice enough, but she kept making all these inferences that weren't accurate. When I tried to say no, she tried to explain more and more about what she was saying. She just wasn't listening, so I said, "I'm sorry, I can't anymore." Now I'm back with Kaiser Permanente, and I'm still in the process of trying to find somebody. Hopefully soon. But last I spoke, no.
Des: You're just calling the insurance company and not the therapists?
Sarah: With Kaiser Permanente, they have people who work with that insurance company. Everything is through them. They have the doctors’ offices on the website, and I tried calling them directly, but they say, "You have to call Kaiser. They do it all through Kaiser."
I had a regular doctor's appointment, but since it's Kaiser, everything is in the same building. Mental health, family practitioners, pharmacy, everything. I went there for a regular check up and I thought, "While I'm here, mental health is here, too," so I go there and I ask them, "These are the problems that I'm having. Can you help me?"
“Here's a number."
I call the number. It's the same number I've been calling.
Des: That is so infuriating
Sarah: It is. But I know that the therapy helps, so that keeps me positive about it.
Des: Tell me more about the time you spent in the hospital as a teenager.
Sarah: I was there for about two weeks. I was only 16, but I felt like whatever dignity I had was being taken away. You get there and they put you in scrubs. When they feed you, it's on a little kid's cafeteria plate, molded into shapes to look like food. [The food] was tasteless.
Kids would have freakouts and they would shoot them up with Ativan, then throw them in a punishment room that was right there in our communal area. We could hear them screaming the whole time. I remember the band of kids all kind of formed together and walked down the halls linking arms, like it was us against them.
I felt really invalidated [by the doctor who was seeing me], like my feelings weren't right—again with the whole “situational depression” thing. [I tried to explain that] the base issues were there, and it was usually those base issues that [caused] my friends and I to do drugs. Our families sucked and people sucked. We were feeling indifferent and disconnected to everybody and everything.
I think that’s one thing that's probably carried over—that disconnection from other people. The line of trying to get help from other people, where I feel like they should be showing me that there is a connection, but they're further alienating me, and I'm just losing more hope. Not in the way of feeling sad every day, but in a way that there is something wrong, even in the best of things. It's just disheartening.
Des: What do you want from mental health professionals? From cops who come and deal with these types of emergencies? From people in the ER and the hospitals?
Sarah: I just wish there were people who were more competent. That’s the word that comes to my head, but really it's more about just being a human being.
You wouldn't treat your friend that way if your friend was like this. You’re just showing me that I'm nothing to you. I don't have a connection with this person, so why should they treat me with any sort of care? How would they treat their daughter if she was going through what I was going through? Not like that. If they are treating their daughter like that, no wonder she feels that way. The world doesn't need people like that.
The way that we think and feel, we don't need that. We need people to say, "It's okay to cry," because it is okay to cry! I know that now. Even though I know that, it's still hard for me to do that to this day. I'll be talking, just regular conversation, but I'll have tears dripping down my face. The good, bawling kind of crying [comes so rarely], but I always feel so much better afterwards. I encourage my friends to cry, too. There's always this way people feel about crying—that it's weak and wrong, and like, "I don't want you to see me like that." Even though I try to tell people that it's okay, I still have that kind of mentality embedded in my head, too.
I think if professionals were open to that, more people would be able to let go of that. I think if people were able to let go of that, they could be open more. If they're open more, we could [avoid] the point where [people are trying to take their own lives].
Des: How do you feel about medication?
Sarah: Not very good. I think you have to be careful with it. I didn't have a good experience, but I was also younger. I know they say it's different when you're an adult. I know, I hear them say that. I have friends who are on medication, and it helps them get to a baseline where they're good, but I also know that some doctors get pill-happy. I don't know, I have mixed feelings about it…
If I could be happier, but still experience the lows, or be aware of them… I almost take it like a badge of honor. In the sense that I feel so much of me, so many aspects of myself that I have developed because of this pain and suffering. I feel like, without that, I wouldn't have the amount of empathy that I do have. That's one trait that I really like about myself. I'm empathetic, I'm patient.
It's one of those things you learn from all of the coping mechanisms. If you're feeling bad, look in the mirror and say all of these things about yourself that you love. Learn to love yourself. I've looked in the mirror and said, "You're patient, Sarah. You're empathetic." I don't think I would have been those things if I hadn't experienced what I experienced. I think that sort of feeling helps me grow even further.
Des: Is suicide still an option for you?
Sarah: Yeah. I actually think about doing it every day. It's probably the biggest contradiction in my life because there’s nothing that I want more... and yet, it's the last thing that I want. I have all these goals, I have [my husband], my dog, and a best friend. I feel like things just keep growing in my list of reasons not to. Still, every morning it's the first thing I think of when I open my eyes. It taints everything in my life—the way that I think about it.
It's almost like a fantasy now. Waking up each morning, eyes open, I'm thinking, "Why?" It feels like poison, you know? And poison kills slowly. It sounds so pessimistic, but I think it's always going to be an option. I think I may get fed up again someday, and it may happen again…
Des: Are there any mornings that you wake up and don't feel that way?
Sarah: No... I did have a really awesome experience on Friday, though. It was the first time I can remember having a feeling like that in… I don't know [how long]. Probably top five moments in my entire life, this Friday. It was my newly found best friend, her kid, another kid, [my husband], and [a couple friends who] flew up for a vacation.
We were doing this big thing, like trying to talk to our spirits. We went to Coos Bay, which is one of the beaches in Oregon. We found a beach that we could actually swim at, because usually Oregon beaches are too cold to swim. We found this beach and it was just awesome. We made dirty sandcastles.
Days like Friday are so few and far between. Honestly, I can't even think of the last time I thought to myself, "I feel happy right now. I'm enjoying what's happening," and it lasted more than a fleeting thought. That alone makes me want to endure the mornings, even though it is the worst part of the day. The morning didn't start off that way. It started off with dread, and thinking, "There's all these people here, and I have to put on my happy face because I'm a hostess now… there's children and they're all crazy. What if I snap at them or something? I'm a grouchy old man," but it wasn't like that at all.
I had no idea until it happened, and then I thought, "Okay, this is possible. It's possible for me to feel this way." I had forgotten what it felt like, and I had forgotten that it was possible. I had almost given up on it. I didn't force it to happen, and usually I try to force myself to be happy. I try to force myself to make good things happen, and it never happens. But this just happened, and I [had been] dreading it.
Friday was a good day.
Des: Do you feel hopeful?
Sarah: In bits and pieces; yes and no. I'm not super unrealistic though. When I was talking to a therapist, they asked, "What's a goal?"
I said, "I want to be happy."
They said, "Well, that's not really going to happen. Let's go with, “I don't want to kill myself every day.”"
So, I'm hopeful that I'll increase the moments in my life where I don't feel like a complete and utter failure, even if it's by an hour. I'll take that, because they're so far and few in between. I have hope for that. I've had a job for over a year now; that's never happened. I just hit my one year. I'm hopeful that I'm going to keep my job a little while longer, and that's actually improved my mood a lot.
I've done a lot of experimenting with situations and putting things in my life, like, "How will this affect me?" I've already found some things that are working. I think there are more things that I just haven't found yet.
Des: You’re still actively struggling. What keeps you alive?
Sarah: I have really big goals. A lot of it has to do with my guilt complex. I don't feel adequate, so I always try to do these really big projects to show I do have a purpose. I'm kind ofimplanting myself in scenarios. I feel passionately for things that have to do with mental health and the art community. Eventually, I do want to have my own art gallery. That's a big goal I have. I want to make an impact, somehow.
Des: What's the one thing we could teach people to do to make this better? Every person, not the professionals.
Sarah: They just need to shut up and listen. I saw this really great meme: it was this person, and he was just sitting there crying like an old pathetic, and his friend comes up and says, "Hey, wanna talk?"
"What can I do to make you feel better?"
Then he comes back and he says, "Okay, I made you a pillow fort. Do you want to go lay in it?"
The depressed person was like, "Yes..." He crawls in it, and he's just looking up at his friend.
"Can I do anything else for you?"
"Are you ever going to come out of there?"
"Do you want me to come in there with you?"
Then they just go under this pillow fort. I think that's the most perfect thing I can say: proximity to [a person’s] body, and not saying things sometimes. Because, usually—no offense to people who try—but they don't know what to say. People who feel like this are filled with a chronic guilt. Everything they feel, do, and say is just wrong. It eats me away, that sort of guilt. When people say things like, "Chin up," or, "What do you have to be depressed about?" I think,"Oh, thank you for piling all this extra guilt on me. I know that there are children dying in Africa. I know that people have cancer. I'm sorry I don't have cancer, but I do have this other thing, and it's eating away inside of me. Just because it's not formed into a tumor, doesn't mean it's not there. It is there. Trust me, I've tried to think positively, but it doesn't work like that."
Don’t be judgmental. Obsessing about people being judgmental makes things worse [for the depressed person]. Without realizing it, they're closing down. Before, you were an option to reach out to when they're feeling like that. Seeing that this is how you're gonna react, you are no longer an option. You just cut off an arm of support, without even knowing it. Just shut up, listen, and make pillow forts.
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’d like to talk to a peer, warmline.org contains links to warmlines in every state. If you don't like talking on the phone, check out Lifeline Crisis Chat or you can reach Crisis Text Line by texting START to 741741. If you're not in the U.S., click here for a link to crisis centers around the world.
Sarah'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 Molly Shannon for providing the transcription to Sarah's interview, and to Sara Wilcox for editing.
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