Vyronika Van Meter was 21 years old when I interviewed her in Eugene, OR, on July 30, 2014.
TRIGGER WARNING: discussion of methods, substance abuse
I kinda got to start back at childhood to where it leads up to this. You know, I grew up with a mother who was not very motherly. She was a drug addict and, in fact, when I was born, she was so doped up the whole pregnancy, she didn't even show until she gave birth to me on the floor of the emergency room. I spent my whole life swearing I'd never be like her because everything she did was horrible. Horrible, horrible, horrible. I swore when I did have kids I was going to do really well.
Well, I ended up being just like her. I had a car accident and my first two children died, and I managed to live through that, and I continued to use for a couple of years. My third child went up for adoption and finally I got sober and kind of got back on my mission of, "Okay, I’m going to do better. I'm going to do better."
I ended up having another kid. I was doing amazing. As of, actually, as of two days ago last year, I had a year sober.
I went to Faerieworlds, which is this awesome little faerie festival that comes through every year, and they are a lot of fun. I was a vendor. I was selling little spiritual gifts that I make, and some homemade tea. It was a great weekend but, my partner at the time—we had brought the baby up, my son Xander, and after one night, we decided it was too hot during the day and too cold at night to have a baby up there without some kind of insulation—so he went home with the baby and I stayed.
Well, over the weekend, my partner relapsed. When I came home, he was very angry. I got all my stuff in and he came out of the bedroom, and there was a fight. He hit me with an eight pound crowbar, and I ended up waking up in the hospital.
There was a caseworker there. We talked and she tried to get me to tell her that I had a place to go. All she wanted was that I had a safe place to put myself. According to my grandparents, I did, but my mother lives on the property and claimed she was on her way over to get me and the baby.
When she got there, she told the caseworker that I was mentally unstable and she couldn't have me on the property, but she'd be willing to take my son. So allegations were filed against me, and the state had custody. That was a year ago today, the state took custody. Two days later, I think it was a Monday, I went to court. No, it was Wednesday I went to court.
When I went to court, they didn't let me talk, they wouldn't let me say anything, and the judge gave custody [to the state], even though everyone in my family was there to say, "You know what? She's got a safe place to go. Everything's good. We've got the financial means to take care of both of them."
The judge still said, "I'm going to award custody to the state."
That night, I went back to the apartment because my partner had gone to stay with his parents while I was supposed to be clearing my things out. While I was alone, I went to my next door neighbor's and asked him for my lock box, which had most of my medications from a previous injury in it. I got those out and took more than enough [pills] to put myself out, and then I chased it with a bottle of vodka. Big old bottle that I had been stashing, even though I was sober.
I was like, “I’m going to keep this for guests.” Because I had a year sober, I figured I should have some entertainment liquor for my guests who would eventually come over to my place. That worked out entirely too well.
I didn't end up waking up in the hospital, I woke up in a puddle of bloody vomit on the floor and grabbed the last of my things and headed out.
I lived on the streets for a while and was drunk. I made it from that first relapse about, oh, I'd say about fifteen, sixteen days sober. I was trying to hold on to what recovery I did have, and then I was sitting outside of one of the visitations with my son, and I remember just being so broken I couldn't walk two squares of concrete before I hit my knees. I was just broken.
One of my old drinking buddies happened to walk by and was like, "Man, you look tore up! You want a beer?"
I looked up and said, "You bet your sweet ass I do! You bet your sweet ass I want a beer!"
We ended up doing some methamphetamine and a whole lot of Jack Daniels, and I stayed high and drunk until November 9th of last year. November 10th [is] my current clean date. I'm eight months and, I think, twenty days sober. My life is, like, a thousand times better.
My family now has custody of my kid and we are working towards permanent guardianship so they can give him back to me. What we're doing is getting the state out of the picture because the state was not leaving me alone.
They took me off my anti-psychotics for a week for a stress-test and my pain meds and a bunch of other things and said, "This is a stress test. We're going to see how you hold up without your medications in case something should happen."
Well, that was the worst week of my life thus far. I don't know how I made it through that other than I stayed with people who were recovering like I was. I made it, and so now my family and I are agreed that we are going to have this permanent guardianship that would give my family—my grandparents—permanent custody of my son. But as soon as the case closes and the state is out of it, they can give me custody. So, that's the idea. What we're going to do is give the case over to the grandparents to control, and then they're going to give him back to me, and everything's going to be done.
That's my story.
Des: You talked about your tattoo earlier. You mentioned being in the hospital.
Vyronika: This is not from that. This A11S is my patient number when I was 14. I was locked up from the last two months of being 13 to the first two months of being 15 because my dad responded badly to me coming out as bisexual and said that I threatened to kill him. There was a huge fight. The only person with any bruises on them was me, and I ended up locked up. It just so happened that, right at the same time, the day that I went in, somebody told the school that I had made a bomb threat and I hadn't. I wasn't that type. I was the type who just wanted to be left alone. I was quiet and reserved. I just wanted to be left alone. So, the cops showed up, my therapist showed up, my therapist arranged for me to have a bed at the psych ward, and I stayed there for almost a year and a half.
When I got out, I was a whole new kind of mean. I ended up looking up one of my childhood friends, Emilie Autumn, who had gone on to achieve fame and fortune. I'm really proud of her, but uh... I found her music and was like, "Dude, she put out some really good stuff while I was locked up!" I became a fan, obviously, because who's not a fan of their childhood friends who achieve stardom? She's not really a star, but she's a star in her own right.
Des: She's got an audience.
Vyronika: She has a following. She has a group of people that, if she ever said, "It's time for war!" we'd suit up and show up. She has more than an audience.
So, when I turned 18, I got this tattoo. I was like, "Okay, well, now I've got my asylum tattoo." It's actually on the opposite arm from the one she has hers on because I'm so anti-conformity that I had to get it on the wrong arm.
Des: You weren't hospitalized after your attempt. Do you think that's because you had a bad experience [prior], or?
Vyronika: I think that's because no one found me. No one ever found me, and so I just ended up waking up on the floor and then getting up and leaving and doing my thing. I haven't been hospitalized psychiatrically since, which is kind of nice.
Des: What do you think of that? Do you think that people who attempt suicide should be hospitalized? What do you think should happen?
Vyronika: I think it's person by person. I have a couple of friends who are suicide attempt survivors who, when it happened, they didn't need to be locked up afterwards. It's not a point of if you're crazy or not.
Again, back to Emilie Autumn. She has a line in one of her songs, "When my body suffers, when to breathe is pain, is it really madness to think of breaking this chain?"
That's where I stand. If you're in pain, it's not exactly mad to think about breaking it off. If you're kind of making your way through life in a state of unhappiness, you'd shoot a dog for less. So it makes perfect logic that we, as humans, the ultimate species, have a right to get out on our own accord, as well. I think that, if there are other issues at play, maybe hospitalization could be beneficial, but if it's a matter of a logical decision to get out of a life that's not of any quality, then no, hospitalization is not of any use.
I think that an outpatient treatment service of some sort of would be an amazing tool—a recovery service to help you get through whatever it was that was making your life unmanageable. I don't believe in hospitalization for every suicide attempt. I believe that there should be a resource for some kind of recovery after the fact, because that would be a lot more useful to the people who deal with suicidal thoughts and actions. I really think that would be much more useful because, you know, we don't send drug addicts to the hospital, unless they're DT'ing really hard. And then we send them to a treatment service that gives them the tools to cope with why they used. That is saving lives. I think that, if we had something similar for people who have attempted suicide, it would do the same. It would save lives. Because, then, you don't have the stigma of, “I was in the hospital for three months after I tried to kill myself,” you have, "I just got out of a treatment service that helped me understand why I tried to kill myself and helped me build and make my life bearable."
That's my state of ideas on what should be done post-suicide attempt.
Des: Sounds a lot of better than what's happening now.
Vyronika: I know that, after my last suicide attempt, if I'd had a coping program there to help me, I probably would have come off it a lot quicker and a lot better and probably not been high for a couple months following. But, as it was, I didn't have any resources to help me cope. That's what I did. I just survived. Now that I've got eight months in recovery, I'm really happy with where my life is. I've got my own place, I'm soon to be married, which is freaking amazing, and my life is full.
Des: Do you feel like you still struggle with suicidal thoughts at all?
Vyronika: I have a terminal illness, and have since I was 13. There are times when I think, sometimes, it's a logical decision to say, "Okay, I'm done with this."
At this point my doctors are saying that my life is ending anyways, so it'd make sense to just cut the chain. But I know I have a 100% survival rate on getting through bad days right now. I have a 100% success rate on surviving bad days, so why wouldn't I want to try to break that record? I've got a life to live, and if it comes to an end fairly soon, well then, dammit, they'll say I survived it. I fricking rocked it. That's my idea on thinking about it and acting on it.
I have a really rare strain of brittle bone disease and it's causing bones, nerves, and muscles to deteriorate, and thus, the wheelchair. That's my life.
Des: What do you think about mental illness?
Vyronika: I’m of the communal idea on illness of every sort. When one person in the community is sick, it's because the community itself is sick. They're the canary. In the early mining days, they would take a canary down into the mineshaft and if the canary didn't sing, it's because there were gasses down there that were toxic and the canary had died... If it's not making any noise, it's dead, and they shouldn't go down there. I think that people with illness of any sort are a canary for our community, saying something that is sick inside of the community that needs fixing. If we manage to bring the community together in a manner of healing people, we're healing the community as a whole, and there will be less sickness of all sorts.
I think mental illness is the result of a sick community. Time and time again, it's proven itself true. People with mental illness were lacking on some sort of resource in their community, some sort of ability to meet their needs, because I think that that patterning in the brain happens as a coping mechanism. Their brain does something to make something happen. We can fix that by healing the community, and bringing people to a point where the community is better, so they start recovering.
Des: Who does that healing? Do you think that it should be relegated to just the doctors?
Vyronika: No, I think it should be [the responsibility of] the whole community. I think we should have projects that spring up that help the community come together as a whole. Because without everybody's involvement, we're still a seperatist community, and seperation is one of the biggest problems. It causes a lot of people to feel left out. They're not able to cope with things because they don't have the resources. That's my point of view.
Des: Tell me what worked after your attempt and what didn't. Who helped?
Vyronika: Well, after my attempt, it wasn't until November that I really... found a community of people who were in recovery, and those people rose up to meet me. One of the big things I've learned by going to twelve-step meetings—we call them twelve-step meetings—was if you don't speak up and share what's going on, either in a meeting or with your sponsor or with your support group, the community can't rise up to help you. I have made a pattern of, when I'm struggling, I speak up.
I go to my home group meeting and I say, "Something's wrong and I need help," and this community rises up to meet my needs. That has worked on so many levels, along with working the twelve-steps, which I think the whole world could benefit from.
I have thought about constructing a Suicide Anonymous. Right now all they have is [DRA], which is dual diagnosis, which is purely for people who are mentally ill and drug addicts or alcoholics.
Des: There is a SA on the East Coast, but there aren't many.
Vyronika: I was thinking about starting one up here.
Des: There are a couple people in Jersey.
Vyronika: Cool! But yeah, I really think the whole world could benefit from starting a twelve-step program and learning how to maintain one and working together.
In a piece of literature from one of my twelve-step programs, it says, "The therapeutic value of one addict helping another is without parallel. There is nothing so therapeutic as one person going through one thing, helping someone going through the same thing."
There is a level of bonding and trust that happens when you are working with somebody who's been through it, and so I think that if we got a community for people who've found themselves at the end of their line saying, "It's a more logical decision to die and take myself out of this than to continue living..." if we've got a community of people who'd been through that, working with each other around that, there would be a lot more recovery happening and a lot more people who found the hope at the end of the line. You know, found the last house on the block and found a bed to stay there because, with my experience in twelve-step programs, it works. It works because the community works. We are a fellowship of sick people, but together we make wellness. We cannot be well without being whole.
The very first tradition in all twelve-step programs is that our common welfare should come first. Personal recovery depends upon group unity. Which means, if we're not taking care of these meetings and we're not taking care of the community, we can't take care of the individual. I believe in that as a standard for all communities. We should think about community wellness first because community wellness can—will—benefit individual wellness.
That's what helped me, is getting into a twelve-step program and finding my way to both sobriety and recovery. Now I'm working with other people. Now I'm a sponsor.
I'm taking other people through the steps and it's a very, very rewarding thing to see somebody who's got, say, a couple of days clean and sober, looking for help and [me] being able to say, "Well here, I have the keys to the toolshed and I can teach you how to use the tools, too."
One of the things I always tell my sponsees is, "I can give you the keys to the toolshed, I can teach you how to use the tools, but I cannot grow your garden for you."
My job as a sponsor is to make myself unnecessary, to teach them so well how to use the tools that they can grow their garden and teach somebody else how to use the tools. I think if we had that in most communities, no matter what issue, that there would be a lot more bettering to the group.
Des: Tell me about relapse—and how you handle a relapse in a twelve-step program—versus how you think people should handle a relapse of suicidal thoughts or a suicide attempt.
Vyronika: I think that relapse on all levels is the same. A slip is [when] sobriety loses its priority. I think that's the same for everyone. It could be that survival loses its priority... Relapse happens when you stop involving yourself in the community. In my twelve-step program that I'm mostly involved in, the people who I've seen relapsing are the people who withdraw from the social construct of the program. We're a community. We are a family of people who've been through the same thing. If it didn't work, I wouldn't be here. And so relapse really is the point of not accessing the tools that we continue to offer. It happens. I say that relapse is a part of recovery. It happens.
I know that I'm not always going to be safe from my suicidal ideas. I'm in a pretty good amount of pain on a daily basis and, logically speaking, from a pure-logic no-emotion standpoint, it would be more logical to leave the world and stop all of it than to face whatever is coming next. But you put emotion and connection and relationship into that, and things seem a little bit better. I work really hard to stay in a community of people who've been through similar experiences to me. My closest support group is the people who've tried to kill themselves and are alcoholics. That's where I get my recovery.
That's why I have 8 months sober, because I continuously put myself in a community of people who know what I'm going through and have more time and more ability to say, "Well, this is what worked for me," so I can try that. It's really good to have community wellness. That's one of my biggest things that I put first, community wellness. Because without it we can't really survive.
That's my point of view on relapse, because all relapses are the same. It's a failure to access the resources of your community.
Des: Have you ever dealt with self-injury?
Des: Tell me about that.
Vyronika: It was actually during my hospital stay in the asylum.
Des: Because why wouldn’t it be then!
Vyronika: I know... It was just my way of being able to breathe. From a medical standpoint, I was using the beta-endorphin as my drug of choice. It makes a lot of sense because addictive personalities... well, they're addictive. That's what happens when you have an addictive personality that finds something that works.
Des: Talk to me about self-injury. A lot of people think that it's a suicidal behavior.
Vyronika: I think it's a preventative behavior. I have more clean time than I do self-injury time. There have been moments where picking at a scab or something to give myself a little bit of beta-endorphin, something to just [let myself know], "Okay, there's some sensation left. I'm still alive," have prevented me from doing worse things. I really think that self-injury is an incredible coping skill. It's using your body's resources to give yourself a little bit of relief. I had 65 days clean the last time I cut myself, so it's been a while, and it was a relapse prevention. I only made two lines and it was just enough to give me that breath of, "Okay, I'm still real. Everything still works. It's okay."
I think that people who are cutting themselves are trying to find a non-suicide relief, so I wouldn't treat it as a suicidal behavior.
If my kid ever fessed up to cutting himself, I would be like, "Okay, well, let's find the group problem. Let's see what you're trying to survive," instead of, "Well, why are you trying to kill yourself? Dah dah dah dah dah," the way most parents respond to it.
[I would say,] "Alright, well, what are you trying to survive and how can I help you?" Because every cutter I've ever met was trying to survive something, was trying to use that to get through something.
I think that the response should always be, "Well, what are you trying to live through? What is killing you that you are trying to survive?"
That's my simple point of view on things.
Des: You've said a lot of things that have kind of been supportive of say, cutting, or the logic of why someone would kill themselves. So, do you think that suicide is preventable? Should we be focusing on suicide prevention?
Vyronika: Yes. I think the suicide prevention tactics we have now are wrong, that they won't work. I see that they don't work... Suicide is a process. It's a progressive illness in itself, just like alcoholism or drug addiction. Suicide attempts are the maximum progression of an illness. Just like alcoholism is a disease, so are suicidal thoughts. If we had a way, if we had the twelve-step program that would meet the needs of that community, if they were able to work together and get through what they're going through, then I think that it would benefit them.
I will always be a person who thinks that the whole world could benefit from a twelve-step program. You don't just work the steps once and you’re done. You work them for the rest of your life. They work around everything. The only step that mentions a problem is the first one. We admitted we were powerless and our lives had become unmanageable. You can be powerless over anything. I had to work a set of steps around my kid still being in kinship care. I had to work a set of steps around becoming a sponsor. I had to work a set of steps around getting kicked out of my old place.
It's a lifetime program. It's lifetime education without graduation, and the fact that you don't graduate means you always have that community.
I think that if people who are dealing with suicidal thoughts from any source, if they had a specific group or program that they could go to and say, "I'm like you and I need help," then there would be a lot less suicide attempts. I really think if there was a community of people recovering from the suicidal thoughts, there would be much more recovery and severely decreased suicide attempt numbers, because if people are finding people like them and working with them, again, there is no therapeutic match to one person struggling working with [another] person struggling with the same thing. No match. There is no equal to it. You can't get a better therapist than someone who's survived what you're going through. 'Cause, back to logic, logically speaking, they survived it, they know how. I must ask them. So, if you have a community of people who've survived it and even avoided attempting suicide, then why not ask them how they did it? Why not have a group of people sharing in meetings? It's an hour of life, sharing in meetings how they did it. Why not?
Des: Because we're dangerous to each other.
Vyronika: We can be, but what I've found in the twelve-step programs I'm in is that there are people who are dangerous and there are people who take advantage of other people's early sobriety and other people's problems. But, as a whole, these programs are amazing and no matter what group you're going to, you have to watch out for fucking freaks. You have to watch out for the weirdos. It goes without saying that no matter what group you're in, there's going to be a weirdo.
Des: Yeah. That's, I think, what's been keeping us from having the ability to help one another—the doctors are in control and they think that we're all weirdos.
Vyronika: I think we should doctors almost entirely out of the mental health field, really. I think that medications work—I'm on medications—but I think that more recovery is going to come from working with people who are in the same boat. Because, you know, if you're trying to get resources from somebody in a different boat? It's difficult. But if you're gaining momentum while working with people in your own boat, you're going to get to shore and be able to get your own resources much faster than you're going to be able to send another boat to go get your resources for you.
Des: Tell me more about the meds.
Vyronika: I take an atypical antipsychotic call Seroquel. It just basically levels my moods. I'm not quite so extreme to one side or the other. It's a lot easier for me to stay in the middle ground. Some people need a little help staying on the middle ground, finding that happy medium in between extremes. Medication should be used for that. That alone. Finding the happy medium. Not control. A pill is not going to control anything if you don’t have the resources to learn how to cope.
I'm big on community healing.
Des: I had no idea.
Vyronika: On all levels, I'm big on community healing.
Des: Do you feel like it was a process to get to the right medication?
Des: Tell me more about that.
Vyronika: I was on a couple of different anti-depressants first. I took Prozac, I can't remember... There were like six different anti-depressants they tried before they gave me an antipsychotic. Those made my moods a little weird. I was usually way more up than I was down, and that caused a lot of rift for me, so when they gave me Seroquel, the antipsychotic, it put me in the middle where I was able to think clearly enough to learn how to cope.
From there, I did have to do the personal step of getting myself into the community of people who've gone through what I've gone through and asking them how they did it. You can't get better without looking for help. There are a lot of people looking for help. Personally, I would recommend Alcoholics Anonymous because it's a big group, there are meetings everywhere, and it gives you a place to be able to find help and support while meetings of other sorts get started. If you're in recovery, you're able to start a meeting for what you’re recovering from. If you go to Alcoholics Anonymous long enough to get some good solid sobriety, emotional sobriety, suicidal sobriety, any kind of sobriety, get some good sobriety, then you're able to start a meeting that focuses more on what your real issue is. I started a group for pagans because most twelve-step programs are pretty monotheistic. They've very God-based. So I started a twelve-step program for pagans who suffer with all sorts of compulsions. It's not just an AA, it's not just an NA, it's not a DDA—we're recovering and we need a program that supports us finding any higher power. That group meets tonight. I love that group. There's only four of us, but we're a happy little group...
Des: What is your diagnosis, how much do you care about it, how much do you identify with it?
Vyronika: I am bipolar with schizophrenic complex, and I think that it was important for me to know what the symptomology was, you know?
“Okay, well this is my medical diagnosis. This is what's going on with my brain.”
Having a diagnosis lets you know what your brain is doing. What patterns have my brain formed to cope with my life? Then I was able to get into a community of people who have the same pattern and figure out how they changed the pattern, because if you know how to change the pattern, you can get better. I don't think I am schizophrenic anymore. I know I am still minorly bipolar. I still go through mania and depression.
On the whole, I suffer less. Pain is necessary, pain is mandatory. We all, as humans, hurt. Suffering is optional and I've found a way not to suffer. I don't suffer.
I never say, "I suffer with."
I never say, "I suffer from."
I say, "I experience," or, "I live with."
Yeah, I live with mania and depression. Okay. I have a means of not suffering. That makes my life fuller on the whole. Really, it does. The fact that I have a group of people who help me to learn how not to suffer makes my life a better life. In full, on all levels and in every scale, no matter how, on what angle I look at it from, my life is better.
One of my favorite things is, if you're trying to get a group of people to find a community aspect, give them all a blank sheet of paper and put a Coke can in the middle and tell them to draw the Coke can. Have them sitting in the circle around the coke can. They're all going to draw a different can, but they're all drawing the same can. If you take that, you know that no matter what aspect you're looking at, it's still the same thing, and if you go with that mentality, then you're able to more attach yourself to a community of people.
Des: Is suicide still an option for you?
Vyronika: Is suicide still an option? No. No, because I know for a fact that there is a community of people like me who have been through it and made it through it. If one person's tools don’t work for me, then there's another person I can ask. If I continue to access those resources and continue to look for help, then suicide is not option because I have the ability to find something else. I have the ability to find a healthier means of getting through whatever is leading me to thinking of suicide.
Then I have the ability to say, "Well, how did you survive this?" and make an effort towards surviving it myself.
There was a time when I would have thought, "Yeah, suicide is still an option."
On a literal level, my doctor's started talking to me about assisted suicide. [From] a legal standpoint, yeah! I have a legal way out if I want it, but I don't want it. So, on a literal level, suicide is always an option, but on a personal level, no. Because I have a program that works. I have a community of people that will rise to meet my needs if I say I need help, and that's just the point of it. I have a community of people.
Des: You gotta tell me about the doctor because we're in Oregon, [where assisted dying is legal].
Vyronika: My doctor is for my brittle bone disease. I am in end-stage and on a 100% level, this disease ends painfully. It ends in an excruciating level of pain that most narcotics aren't able to meet and so he said, "Legally speaking, I have to tell you that this is an option," and that’s where that conversation ended. He educated me on the option and then the conversation stopped.
That's where I left it is, "You know what? Yeah. Okay. There's a venue that I don't want to take. There's an option that I don't count as an option for me."
That's where I leave it.
Des: What do you think about it in general, though?
Vyronika: I think that there are always going to be [situations where] that will be the only real way to stop the suffering, because physical illness, it happens. There will be people who go through brittle bone disease where it is too much for them to be able to cope with.
Me? I know this is going to end in a lot of pain. So be it. When I get to where I call heaven, Valhalla, I'm going to be celebrated as a warrior who frickin rocked it! I'm going to get there and my gods are going to say, "Well done! Well done! Well fought, little warrior! Here's a battle-axe. Have some fun."
That's what's going to happen, and I'm looking forward to it. From a creative standpoint, everyone who goes to Valhalla goes across a rainbow to get there. The rainbow bridge leads to Valhalla and the Asgard, and why wouldn't I want to take a hike across a rainbow? Really. Why wouldn't I?
If you’re feeling suicidal, please talk to somebody. You can reach the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 or Trans Lifeline at 1-877-565-8860. If you don't like the phone, check out Lifeline Crisis Chat or Crisis Text Line. If you're not in the U.S., click here for a link to crisis centers around the world.
Thanks to Whitney Rakich, who is a creature of endurance and wonderment, for providing the transcription of Vyronika's interview.
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