Suzanne Miller is a writer who supports her work with part-time jobs as an assistant biology journal editor and paraprofessional for children with special needs in Raleigh, NC. She was 35 when I interviewed her on August 18, 2013.
TRIGGER WARNING: discussion of methods
My father and mother’s family had a plethora of mental illness and depression. Most of it wasn't labeled, but years later, you’re like, 'Yeah that was really crazy.'
My dad was very depressed when he was younger, and even had anorexia around the same time that I did when I was older. Back then they didn’t call it that for guys, but he wouldn’t eat. He looked like a skeleton, and when I got [anorexia] later, he really realized that that’s what that was. From the time I was 10 until I was 25, I had all three eating disorders—anorexia, bulimia and then the over-exercising. When I look back now, [I think] that fueled it a lot, because I was probably extremely malnourished.
My mom—when we grew up—she was a dieter, so it was feast or famine. If mom was off the wagon, you just tried to eat whatever you could, ‘cause you knew next week she was getting back on the wagon and you’d have no food around. With what I know about nutrition and how I’ve educated myself about health, that probably was at least 50 to 60 percent of it, of the depression and mood swings.
My parents seemed to want to have children, but they both had very bad childhoods. Early on I got the impression that we were the parents, that they sort of had kids to have parents. That was a lot of pressure.
I was thinking about this today. I wrote a poem today on my blog.
[There's a line]: "When you’re born into captivity, the only thing you dream about is just being free or you’re institutionalized and you want to stay captive."
That’s the route my sister went for a long time. She just went with the program. She was mom’s little go-to person and was basically institutionalized. I was more rebellious and just wanted to get out and get away and get free someday. I wanted to do everything I could for myself, to educate myself to be perfect to get out of the house. I saw that my mom had way too many issues for me to fix, yet I was somewhat relied on to somehow make that better.
[It was] a lot of the classic things, I guess. Like with eating disorders, often the father in the family unknowingly makes the person his emotional wife. I don’t think my dad intended to do that, but my mom was just very inept and my dad and I were very similar.
To this day I still have to set boundaries at times, like, 'Hey, probably shouldn’t talk about that to my dad. He should talk to my mom about that.'
[There were] a lot of those dynamics going on. I was upper middle class—probably the wealthiest of my whole friend group—and went to private school and went to summer camps in the summer. I had everything tangible. We had a nice house. I had a boyfriend. Had lots of friends. And I just didn’t care about any of it.
I really got to the place where my 15th birthday, I just was so depressed. I remember I would write all kinds of poems and different things and I would, every now and then, let people read them. I think my boyfriend was one of the main people that was concerned, but he was in a very uptight religious environment and he didn’t really know what to say. I think there were people who were concerned, but they just had no frame of reference. They had no idea what to say.
My dad would be empathetic ‘cause he felt that way when he was younger. I think he sometimes passed it off because of that and thought that I had so many more advantages than he did, that probably nothing would come of it. He was so preoccupied with my mom. Everything really in our family was about my mom. How was my mom feeling? How was she gonna handle things? You didn’t really have time to feel bad. You weren’t supposed to have time to feel bad.
If you started to feel that way or express that, [you would hear], “Well, your mother grew up with a schizophrenic mom and she didn’t even have a dad. You have a dad and you have a nice house,” so there was a lot of guilt.
She would say, “Oh, you’re sad about that? Well, I grew up and I was homeless at one point.”
It was always the extreme and it was true. It was all true, and you felt horrible for her, but then there was the added guilt: you’re an awful person, you have all these things and you’re not happy. In her mind, if she just had a father like my father, and if she just had stuff, she would have been happy.
My family was very much into their faith, into their Christianity. We went to church every Sunday and, for me, it was a schedule. It was something you did. I went to a Christian private school and I didn’t see anyone living that out to any extent. Most of the people I knew that adhered to that were very fake and very miserable. I even had friends whose parents were staunch members in the church and at the school, and the dad had molested the daughter. He apologized to the church, so they let him back in the house. Weird stuff to do with faith and religion, and so that, at that time, didn’t mean anything to me. I really just got to where nothing meant anything.
I thought, ‘I won’t do it at home ‘cause I don’t want mom to find me at home.’
Again, even in thinking about how I was gonna die, it was about what my mom was gonna think. That’s sick.
I thought, ‘Well, I’m just gonna have to do it at school.’
It was the day after my birthday. I think that was the year that my birthday was almost forgotten about. I’m not sure what all was going on, but even my friends were…it kind of snuck up on them that year, and they didn’t realize.
I did a pretty good job. My friends rarely realized the extent of [how bad it was at] home. That added to it. I could tell [people] had just thrown it together at the last minute and, looking back, it’s just life. Things happen and they were busy and I didn’t remind anybody. People have a lot of things to remember.
But when you’re depressed and then that happens too, you’re like, ‘Well, that seals it.’
I felt like every adult I knew, I didn’t want to have their life. I didn’t want to be anything like what they were doing. I just had this dooming sense that there was nothing that was gonna get me better. It could only get worse from there. I had a very big... the burden of feeling like you’re always gonna be responsible for your mom, you’re not gonna ever be able to get out of this whole situation. It was really interesting.
I took the whole huge bottle of 100 Extra Strength Tylenol—the biggest bottle you can get—and took it to school. I went in the bathroom and I just took all of them. I sat on the floor and I waited, and I waited a long time. I remember starting to feel very tired.
I looked up and I still to this day don’t know what class the kid was in or anything—it’s a very small school, it was elementary all the way through high school—I had never seen that kid before. That really was interesting to me later, that I’d never passed her in the hall, never seen that kid.
A girl comes walking in and she doesn’t see me, and she gets up on the... I’m sitting down near the paper towels, and she gets up on this little staircase to wash her hands.
I remember looking at her washing her hands in the mirror and I thought to myself, ‘I really just wish I could be little again and go back and do all this over. I would do so many things different. I would try to be a different person.'
After all the years in my whole life, going to church every Sunday, having parents at home praying all the time, doing bible studies, that was the first in my life that I heard God’s voice say to me, “You can in me.”
That shocked me. It was very audible. I got up and kind of staggered down the hallway to the classroom and I told a friend of mine. She was the only friend that I knew for sure at the school wasn’t even a Christian, but I knew she would not judge me. And I knew her brother, who was a close friend of mine, had tried that before. So I told her, and she told the teacher. They called my dad. My dad came to the school and had to get me. We had to go home. [He gave] me ipecac [so I would] throw up. I think that must have been very hard for him...
My mom, of course, was just furious when she came home. She was so embarrassed, and just went on and on about how are people gonna look at me now and what will people think about me. My dad, his big thing was to always stay functioning and try to do as much, as many normal things as you can. Oh, and you can’t let anybody down. I was on a softball team. I don’t know if you’ve ever had to take ipecac, but it’s gut-wrenching. My whole chest hurt from coughing all that up and you’re dizzy. It’s the worst kind of vomiting—just from the gut. And he was just determined that I could not let the team down. I went and played softball.
I remember thinking and realizing how weird everybody thought that was, and I thought it was weird too. Nobody talked about it. My friend who had tried it before himself was the only one to call me. He was the first one to call me, even before my boyfriend. My boyfriend was very embarrassed. We broke up not long after that. He didn’t know how to handle it. My friend who had had to go to the psych ward before for that, he called me. So yeah, I went, played softball, and we just didn’t talk about it. I remember just knowing that what I feared was true—I didn’t mean anything more than what I made them look like. That was really hard because I always thought that in the back of my head.
But you convince yourself. You think, ‘No, surely not. My parents, they care about me.’
The good thing, I think, that came out of it—maybe that’s the elementary teacher in me, that I have to find a good thing—from that point on, I had a very deep faith. I really accepted Jesus into my life and I became a Christian that day.
That changed my whole life from there on out. I’ve never been that black again. I really started going after and seeking my faith a lot on my own, and realizing that my faith didn’t have to be my parents’ faith or the faith that I saw at the school. It came down to a life or death thing for me. I felt like I had much more purpose than to just be here for what I made them look like, that I had a purpose totally separate from that, that God had a purpose for me. It was very freeing for me in a way. I think it sort of started the whole journey of me knowing I had purpose if they died tomorrow, that they were just the vessels that brought me here—that, ultimately, my family did not make me and my parents didn’t make me. They were just a conduit for how I got here. And that was freeing too...
I think the hard thing about when you’ve ever attempted anything like that or even been to the place where you were willing to do something like that. When you have stress in life, it’s always on the table. You talk to other people. They would never. They might want to drink, they might want to go shop or spend a lot of money. They might lay on the couch for several days or get upset, but that’s not on the table for them. They don’t think about that. But once you’ve sort of crossed that line... that bothered me for a long time.
I felt like, ‘Oh, there’s something really wrong with me that I think about that so easily.’
I let myself off the hook about that now. I just know that I’m probably gonna think about it if I’m really stressed, and I really just pray and try to be more outward and go do things for other people who are worse off. That helps me a lot. But I just accept that that’s probably gonna rear its head. I can handle it more now, and I know, hands down, I need to not be by myself for a while when that happens. I'm more honest with other people about it, and even with my husband or other people who are close to me. I make a point, if no one can be around—if people are at work or whatever—I’ll make a point to go out and go work somewhere public, at a coffee shop or whatever.
I don’t look at that as a flaw or something that’s really wrong with me. I look at that as I know who I am and I know my limits. I have enough things now that I appreciate about myself to do with my creativity, and I don’t know if I could have those things if that hadn’t happened to me. If I wasn’t the kind of person who can feel such extreme sadness, I don’t think I could feel the extreme joy either.
Des: Is suicide still an option?
Suzanne: I think it is, yeah.
I wrote a line once that I think is true that I think for quite a few people: "From the day you’re born until the day you die, your body’s always trying to get back to the earth."
I think there’s something in nature, that dust to dust kind of thing, that life itself, that your very body itself is decaying over time, trying to push you to death, towards death. To me, it represents that that’s not all there is to this world. It is an option for anybody. I think once it’s on the table, it’s always on the table.
It reminds me of how I think about my eating disorder. They’re very much one in the same. It’s almost like a separate part of me.
I hear people say, “Oh, you have another personality.”
No, it’s not that.
It’s just an awareness of this dark presence that, you know the minute you open the door, all that’s gonna get in and say “Hey, what about this?” or “You wouldn’t feel any of this.”
Have you ever seen “A Beautiful Mind?” You remember how, in the end they were walking beside him, and they just kept talking to him?
They’re saying, “Well, are you better?”
He said he’s just learned to ignore them. And that’s what you do. You pick more and more things to help you ignore them. But I don’t consider that something’s wrong with me. I don’t consider that I’m not healthy because I have to ignore them.
If you’re feeling suicidal, please talk to somebody. You can reach the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255. If you don't like the phone, check out Lifeline Crisis Chat or Crisis Text Line. If you're not in the U.S., click here for a link to crisis centers around the world.
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