Alex Nadleris a suicide attempt survivor.
"I survived a suicide attempt."
Alex Nadler was 23 years old when I interviewed them in Nashville, TN, on December 10, 2016. Alex and Sam Nadler are the first siblings to share their stories for Live Through This.
Alex: I work at a mental health agency. I’m a Peer Support Specialist, meaning that I got my peer certification. Because I have lived experience with mental illness, I get to provide services to people with mental illness and use my experience to relate. I’m from New York originally—Westchester County, unfortunately, but not the rich part. We’re from Port Chester. There’s a difference.
I’m an attempt survivor, as you know. I’m not sure how many attempts I’ve had because some of them were not—I didn’t consider to be attempts until later on in life and they were kind of, for lack of a better way to put it, half-assed. They were more self-harm, but if I’d died, I was kinda okay with that.
As far as hospitalized attempts, I had two of those. The first time I drank bleach. That was great. Would not recommend that as a way to try and end your life. It was really impulsive and I was very angry. That one wasn’t planned; I just got in a fight with my stepmom and was like, “Fuck it.” I was really angry and trying to make a point, so I did that. Then they called poison control and they said, “She needs to go to the hospital,” so it all just kinda went down from there. I went to the hospital.
About a month later, I was on Prozac and it increased my suicidality significantly. Things at home had gotten a lot worse after my attempt, because my parents thought I was doing it for attention. They had punished me for it. I wasn’t allowed to leave the house, or I wasn’t allowed to get on the internet, so I didn’t have any peer support from other people. I don’t think I had any mental health providers that I felt really comfortable with. There was some stuff with my romantic life that was going on. I was really into this girl and she was a bitch, so that didn’t help.
I planned for about a month to overdose, and I went on to overdose. It took about four hours for my parents to find me and—this part is really terrible, but I feel like it’s an important part of my story to share—when my stepmom found me, she called me pathetic and asked me what I was trying to show her. She called my dad and they took me to the ER.
I know a lot of people will have issue with how they were treated by their family after an attempt. That’s a really serious problem. After my second attempt with the pills and all that, I came home and the medicine cabinet was locked, which actually was a good thing, because restricting means is super important. But for them it was not so much a safety thing as it was a control issue. My stepmom had told my half-sisters that I didn’t actually overdose; that I had taken all the pills and flushed them, which wasn’t true. She said I was just doing it to break up our family, that I was trying to ruin our family. I was treated with a lot of distrust after that, just in general or… even now, sometimes when I tell people that I’m an attempt survivor, it’s almost like they need to walk on eggshells around me and I’m like, “I promise if you say the wrong thing, I’m not gonna go shoot myself. I promise.” It’s not quite like that, but there’s just a lot of stigma and misunderstanding.
I’ve had to have a lot of conversations with people who are like, “I think that people do it for attention.”
And I say, “Let’s talk about this please. Let me stop that right here.” It’s really frustrating.
When I did attempt, I thought even if I lived through it, maybe things would get better because my parents would then see how much pain I was in. [They’d see] that I was in so much pain because I did that, but it actually just made everything a lot worse.
From there I had to go to ICU because I had taken a lot of Tylenol, so they were worried about my liver, which ended up being fine. I have no medical problems as a result of my attempts, believe it or not. I know I’m super lucky. For sure, I feel very grateful for the lack of ongoing issues.
I went to the hospital, and then I came home. It got a lot worse after that. But I didn’t attempt as seriously since then, and I was fifteen at that time. It’s weird when I think about that. Obviously, when you’re fifteen, you think you’re old and mature, but looking back on it, I think about kids who are fifteen years old and I’m like, “Man, like, fifteen.”
Des: Barely a fucking person.
Alex: I know! Really though, your personality has barely developed at that point. I feel really weird when I meet fifteen-year-olds now and I’m like, “When I was your age, I tried to kill myself.” Obviously I don’t say that, but that’s my thought process whenever I meet kids that age now. It’s weird to think about that. I guess I should probably explain what made me want to kill myself.
It was a lot of things. I think that’s the case for most people; it’s very rarely one thing. The biggest thing for me was living with my dad and my stepmother. I feel weird using the term “abusive,” but I feel that’s kind of the best way to explain.
My stepmother was emotionally abusive. She just didn’t parent very well. I was grounded all the time and I wasn’t a bad kid. I didn’t really do anything. It was just for little things like dating or having an attitude. Or wearing clothes that they didn’t approve of. That was really difficult. My parents controlled every aspect of my life down to what underwear I was allowed to wear. I had hand-me-down socks. I couldn’t even wear ankle socks. I wasn’t allowed to wear ankle socks. I couldn’t pick out what music I wanted to listen to. The internet got shut off every night at six o’clock. I couldn’t watch anything that was more than TV-PG. I wasn’t allowed to use the phone. I had to be back in the house before dark so in the winter I had to be back in the house by four. I was very, very isolated and because I was never allowed to go out, I didn’t really have a lot of friends. I didn’t have great support.
I had that thing for that girl and she—he goes by another name now, actually, he’s a dear friend of mine, but—he had his own mental health issues so we were just really toxic for one another. That was a whole mess. Strangely, I didn’t have any issues with coming to accept my sexuality. I was pretty good with that, but just the issues with that person and then being at home and not feeling like I had an outlet in any way led to me feeling like I just didn’t—at a certain point, I felt like, because my upbringing was so fucked up, that I wasn’t gonna be able to rebound from that; there wasn’t a way for me to be okay in the future.
I was in so much pain and distress and my parents weren’t listening. I felt like nobody was listening. I wasn’t allowed to talk to Sam either, and my little sister just didn’t understand what I was [going through]. She didn’t deal with depression, so she didn’t really get it. I guess that’s kinda what it all came down to; it’s just feeling like I didn’t have any control over my own life, at all. I thought that was really messing with me as a person. It was, truthfully. But obviously I’m glad that I didn’t die, ‘cause I feel like it’s all things that I can heal from and whatnot. It just takes time. I guess that’s kind of the gist of what led up to my attempts for the most part.
Des: Where’s your mom in all this?
Alex: My mom lost custody when I was six. I was very young. It’s really hard for me to remember everything. I think I have some repressed things, so I don’t remember timelines very well.
I wasn’t allowed to talk to her. We weren’t allowed to talk to her on the phone, so I saw my mom maybe once every six months for two hours with a supervisor. It was me and [my sister] and my mom in a Starbucks and a woman that got hired by the court. My mom had to pay. My mom worried so much that I didn’t want to tell her. I know with my first attempt, my mom knew. The second attempt, my parents—my dad and my stepmom—didn’t tell my mom.
My mom was very angry that she wasn’t informed that that had happened. Understandably, because it was very serious, with the ICU and everything. She wasn’t allowed to come visit me or anything, and I know she really wanted to. I didn’t really have that.
I had a therapist that I really loved, and then—I don’t know, it was kind of weird—any time I got really close with someone, my parents told me I wasn’t allowed to talk to them anymore. I wasn’t really able to get close enough with anybody that I could really open up to or feel comfortable with. Sam was really the only person, and it was so limited, the contact I could have with her, because my parents recorded our conversations and Sam would get in trouble for any little thing she said that was anything negative. If it sounded like it was disapproving or negative of our parents, she’d get in trouble and then her AIM would get blocked. She would just create a new one, but it would sometimes be a couple months. Then, for a lot of that, I think she was in that troubled teen program. I guess I just didn’t really have anybody at that time that I felt like was a good… I just felt super trapped is what it came down to, really. And alone.
Des: Tell me about hospitals.
Alex: Oh, hospitals.
Des: How’d those go for you?
Alex: It depended on the hospital.
The first one I went to wasn’t bad. It wasn’t great, but it was a private hospital, so that one was pretty decent. That was a weird one because everyone had roommates, but because I was out of the closet, they put me in a room by myself. I wasn’t allowed to be with other girls, which I thought was ridiculous because I’m in a fucking hospital, I promise I’m really not trying to pick up anybody today. There were some people in there that were like that; that made me mad because I liked the idea of having a roommate. The peer connection is my favorite thing about going to the hospital. That, for me, was the most helpful, being around other people. That kind of helped normalize my experience. I still talk to some people that I met the first time I was hospitalized, and I was 15. I’m 23 now. I still talk to some of them. That’s weird.
The second hospital I went to was horrible. Really horrible. I think I was there for a month. It was not a private one. They put me on lithium right off the bat, which is weird because, first of all, I was a kid and they usually don’t really like to put kids on lithium. And I don’t have bipolar disorder. There’s nothing wrong with that, but I don’t have that, so to give me that medication… and they diagnosed me with bipolar disorder just to essentially give me that med, which is what a lot of hospitals do. They’ll diagnose you with something to justify the certain medication, but they have contracts with the pharmaceutical companies, so everyone in there was on lithium and a lot of Seroquel.
That one was weird because we didn’t have any groups. I met with the social worker maybe once while I was there. Every time I was in the hospital I was blamed—a lot of the other people that were in there had experienced physical abuse or neglect or were in foster care. They had seen so many horrible cases that, when I came in, I guess I just seemed like a privileged middle class white girl that complained about her parents grounding her. I think that’s what it looked like to a lot of people. The first time I was hospitalized, my therapist told me that she thought my dad was hot, and that was really weird. And really inappropriate.
At the second hospital, we didn’t have any groups and we all just sat in a room, like a common room that was glass, so it was like an observation room where the staff would watch you all day. We’d just sit and watch TV and that’s all we did. That experience wasn’t so great either, especially being on the lithium. I barely remember anything from that point in my life because I was so heavily medicated.
I didn’t go to the hospital again until I was 17. That hospital was great. I went to Silver Hill Hospital. If you know anything about that place, it’s where all the celebrities go for rehab. It was amazing. It was like being in a hotel. They gave you animal therapy once a week, so we had dogs come in. We would go on walks outside, which is unheard of. If you go to other hospitals, you barely see any sunlight, so that was awesome. They gave you nicotine patches if you needed that, which was also unheard of. They made your bed every day. I had my own shower. They had a chef that you could tell what you wanted in your omelets and he’d make you an omelet. It was great. I liked that place.
Last year, I went to the crisis stabilization unit in Nashville. I self-admitted that time, ’cause I got really depressed last fall. Like, really, really depressed. I didn’t get out of bed; I was dehydrated because I wouldn’t get out of bed to drink water, so it was really probably the most depressed I’ve been in a long time. And for no reason. There wasn’t really anything going on. I just got really depressed and I self-admitted to CSU and that was shitty. It was awkward because I had a client who was in there. She didn’t know who I was though, so it was fine, but I recognized her name and I was like, “Oh crap. That’s really uncomfortable.”
CSU wasn’t bad; the staff was really nice. My med provider was an asshole, which they usually are. We were talking about my eating disorder, which I’m in recovery from, and at that time I wasn’t really struggling with that so much. It was more depression. I had gained weight, so I don’t look like what people think an eating disorder looks like. He was asking me about it like he didn’t believe me. Especially with eating disorders, they’re so competitive that if you tell someone, “Well, you don’t look like you have an eating disorder,” that’s really shitty. He asked about that and then he said, “Well, did you lose your period?”
I was like, “Well, I mean I did.” Which is part of DSM-IV criteria for eating disorders. At the time, the DSM-V had been out for two years so I said to him, “Yeah, but actually, the DSM-V took that criteria out because it doesn’t make sense.” Because then you can’t even diagnose men with eating disorders. They don’t have their periods, and some people don’t lose their periods. It’s ridiculous criteria. He was really shitty about it. He thought I was a know-it-all… So, he was shitty, but otherwise that experience wasn’t too bad.
Des: Can you talk more about your experience with eating disorders?
Alex: Eating disorders are so complicated. I’ve found that [that’s the issue] I’ve had the hardest time getting understanding from, even in the mental health community. There’s a special stigma for eating disorders because there’s this idea that eating disorders are just the result of privilege, and to an extent, yes—it took therapy to figure this out, but my eating disorder definitely comes from my stepmom, who was very fat-shaming. Extremely. To the point where both me and my little sister had to wear plus-size clothes growing up and neither of us were heavy kids. We wore clothes all the time that were way too big. We used to tell kids at school that we were homeless or that we were broke because we never had clothes that fit. If I did try to wear something that was too small or that fit me better, she would say things, “Oh, you don’t have the right body type for that.”
If you hear that repetitively as a kid… you may not say exactly, “You’re fat,” but it’s implied. I wasn’t allowed to eat the same things as my half-sisters; they got to eat desserts and sweets if they wanted it. They got chocolate milk and things like that. [My sister] and I were very limited. We had our own cabinet for snacks that was separate. We weren’t allowed to go in the fridge and we weren’t allowed to go in our half-sisters’ cabinet.
It goes a lot deeper than that. There’s a ton of shit, but that’s kind of the gist of the eating stuff, ’cause it was years. It was ten years of that. Gaslighting was her thing. She would do all these things and then say, “Well, I’m doing this because I love you and I care about you, and you don’t want to get made fun of at school, do you? Well, if you wear that, people are gonna make fun of you.” Stuff like that. So, you know, when someone says things like that and you really want approval from your guardian, you just go along with it. I didn’t realize until I was out that I started having eating issues.
It was when I was in the hospital, and there were a lot of other girls in there with eating disorders… we would talk, obviously, and they would tell me about their mentality around eating. I was like, “Well, that’s how I feel about eating,” but I didn’t know that there was anything wrong with that.
I went to the doctor and they said, “Well, you’re seriously underweight.”
I was like, “What?” I was ninety pounds, maybe, and that’s probably sixty pounds less than what I am right now. Prettytiny. But I had no way of knowing that because I had been always told that I was heavy. While trying to gain weight is when I realized I had an issue and that I was really struggling.
It’s just kind of been on and off since then. With that, I’ll go through periods where if I’m happy, I’ll gain a lot of weight, and then I’ll feel really bad about it, and then I’ll start restricting. I was never binge/purge. I had anorexia, or I have anorexia nervosa. I experimented with bingeing and purging, but it upset my stomach, so I didn’t like it. But I restricted. The last time I did that I lost 50 pounds in the span of two months—really rapid. I gained it all back and then I lost it again, and then I gained it back and that’s just kind of how it’s been pretty much since I was 17, just gaining weight and losing weight. I’m in a period now where I’m gaining weight.
Actually, I recently have been struggling a little bit with the eating disorder, just because I don’t have a scale. I don’t weigh myself. But if I’m feeling depressed, my body image will look different to me, like day to day, and so some days I’ll look in the mirror and I’ll be like, “I look great!” The next day I’ll be like, “Oh God, I’m so heavy!” I know that it can’t really be that different, but just because of the way that the eating disorder works, your body literally looks different to you depending on how you’re feeling that day.
Des: Lots of dysmorphia?
Alex: Tons of it, which is really hard, especially with [my partner], because he struggles with gender dysphoria. For him, his body—he’s on testosterone, so he’s lost a ton of weight. Which is weird, actually—most times, people gain weight when they’re on T. But he’s lost a lot of weight and now he’s a lot of muscle.
Eating disorders tend to be comparative because they’re competitive, so it’s hard not to look at your partner and say, “Well, you’re skinnier than me.” I try not to verbalize that to him because then it makes him feel bad about his body, and he doesn’t want to feel little, because he wants to feel like a man. So that’s tough. That’s something that we’re having to kind of work through right now, is me dealing with not feeling so good about my body lately, but he’s really supportive, so that helps a lot. He understands to an extent, because in a way, his gender dysphoria is similar to my dysmorphia. He sees his body as wrong and I see my body as wrong. I guess that kind of helps in some ways. Also makes it hard in other ways.
Des: Talk more about how it’s competitive, because I imagine, this is going on the internet and we’re educating people. If you’ve been in the pro-ana communities, I’m imagining you’ve seen a fair amount of this.
Alex: Yeah, it’s horrible. Especially on Tumblr. Tumblr has a really bad pro-ana thing. It’s really weird, competitiveness. It just comes down to, “I want to be the skinniest. I want to be the thinnest.”
Our little sister just recently dropped a shit ton of weight. Like, a ton. One part of me was worried about her and the other part of me was super jealous, to the point where seeing her was almost triggering. I was like, “Why are you skinnier than me? I want to be the skinny sister,” which is weird and super strange. I’m not competitive in nature, it’s just the way that the eating disorder is, so it comes down to wanting to be the most thin.
Sometimes if I’ll hear someone talk about, “Oh, I haven’t eaten all day,” I’ll think to myself, “Well, I haven’t eaten all week.” It’s a sense of pride, which is really weird, ’cause it’s almost like, “I have so much self-control that I can go this long without eating and look how sick I am.” It’s a really twisted train of thought. I think a lot of women experience this. I’ve talked to a lot of women who don’t engage in restricting behaviors, but they do have that thought process.
So, pro-ana is a really weird phenomenon. I saw this weird meme on Tumblr that was like, “I wish I had enough self-control to have an eating disorder.” I thought, “That’s problematic on a lot of levels.”
If you search pro-ana on the Tumblr tags, you see some fucked up shit. You have blogs where girls will send pictures of themselves and someone will rate them depending on how skinny they are. Stuff like that. It’s really harmful. I don’t really know what to think about that whole group. It’s really strange, and almost offensive to be honest just because I wish that I didn’t have this, because I think about it all the time, like constantly.
It’s not just about weight; it’s about food. I get really stressed out when I have to make food decisions sometimes if I’m struggling with my ED. It needs to be the perfect situation. The eating has to be worth it, if that makes sense. It needs to taste good, it needs to be quick, it needs to not make me feel bad about myself, and it needs to be with people that I like—in company, so I’m not thinking about the food.
It’s very specific, and a lot of times the circumstance isn’t like that so it’s, “If I can’t eat like that, then I don’t want to eat at all; it’s not worth it.” I don’t know, it’s really complicated. It varies, but these are the kind of things I’ve seen in a lot of other people too.
A lot of it has to do with clothes too—that’s the other thing. You wanna look good in everything. At least for me, that was a big thing. Really wanting to be able to wear what I want and have it look good no matter what. Shopping is really difficult, like trying to wear pants. I know everyone deals with that to an extent; going shopping and nothing fits quite right and it’s really frustrating. But it’s a whole ‘nother level of anxiety. It’s like, “My body is wrong, and that is why things don’t fit me. I’m too heavy.” Or like, “Why am I a Large?” Things like that. When realistically, we all know that the clothing industry is totally fucked with their sizing, and I know this, logically.
I think that’s what’s hard about eating disorders, too, is a lot of people who have them logically understand the problems with the thinking. But it’s automatic. Tumblr kinda helped me with this, strangely—there’s kind of an inner dialog that’s happening and people called it Ana. They started to refer to it as Ana. It’s this voice of like, “You’re not good enough. You should do this. You should stop eating.” It’s not quite like hearing a voice, but it’s like having this secondary… it’s not quite your own either, but it’s this other whispering, “You’re fat so you shouldn’t eat that,” or, “Do you really need to eat that?”
I talked to my therapist about it a lot obviously and she kind of pointed out that in a lot of ways, for me, it’s the voice of my stepmom [saying things like], “Oh you don’t really need to wear that. You don’t look quite good in that,” or, “You don’t have the right body for that.” I’ll say things like that to myself and then I’ll be like, wow, that’s weird that I would say that to myself when it was obviously something that hurt me so much growing up. It’s complicated.
It’s really hard even to talk about eating disorders because words are triggering. Certain ways of wording things, even if they’re not meant offensively, your brain intakes and spins it in a way that’s detrimental. It’s really difficult to talk about eating disorders for a lot of people because you don’t know what to say. But that’s hard at the same time because that contributes to the fact that it’s not talked about. Eating disorders are tough. My therapist is really good about talking to me about it. I found that trauma therapists actually tend to be really good about it. I guess because they’re so careful, because trauma’s similar in the way that you have to be careful. I found that eating disorders are a lot like addiction, too. Or like self-harm. That’s kind of something that’s interesting, but like you said, there’s no information and no knowledge, so it’s really hard to say how to deal with them or how to treat them.
Des: I feel like there are links between all of them, I mean, I think there are definitely addictive elements to self-injury.
Alex: Absolutely. Yeah, I would agree with that.
Des: And just from what I’ve seen with eating disorders, there does feel like there’s that addictive, ritualistic, control—they’re all connected. They feel very connected to me. And a lot of people I know who deal with eating disorders have dealt with self-injury.
Alex: I guess that’s true, too. That’s interesting; I didn’t even notice that.
Des: Yeah. Because they’re just different ways of—
Des: Controlling and—
Alex: Releasing, too.
Des: Releasing and transforming pain.
Alex: That’s true.
Des: Because with self-injury, it’s like you’re taking it out of [your head] and [making it tangible].
Alex: That’s exactly what I was talking to [my partner] about; I think that there’s this misconception of self-injury being like a suicide attempt, which is totally not the same thing at all. There were many times where I used to cut to not kill myself. Whenever I relapse now, that’s what it is; I will cut because I’m getting to the point where I’m so suicidal that I’m like, “I need to do something else.” I would much rather cut myself than to go on to kill myself. That’s fine. I know for me with self-injury it was—I call it “stubbed toe theory.” They say when you stub your toe, you pinch your arm to ignore the pain in your foot. That is what it was for me.
It was also genuinely attention-seeking for me. I wanted my parents to see that I was in pain. I felt like they weren’t seeing my pain and so I intentionally did it on my arms because I wanted them to notice and they never did. That’s another thing that really pisses me off about when people talk about self-injury as, “It’s shameful if it’s attention-seeking.” If you’re going to that extreme for attention, clearly there’s something wrong.
Des: You might need attention.
Alex: It’s possible. Oh God, they might actually need that! Oh gosh, how dare you give someone attention who’s asking for it? I don’t know why that’s such a negative thing. Everyone needs attention sometimes, and obviously that’s not the greatest way to achieve attention, but usually that’s a last resort—you’ve tried everything else. No one’s hearing you. And the worst thing is to be in pain and no one is seeing that you’re in pain.
Des: When did you start cutting yourself?
Alex: The first time I tried—this is kind of funny. I was introduced to self-harm because Sam was cutting, which not to blame her by any means, but that was the first time that I ever knew about it. I was 10 when I got introduced to it. I remember being 12 and being in a lot of emotional pain and thinking, “Well, let me try this,” but I didn’t realize that you had to… I knew people did it with razors, but I was thinking shaving razors, and I didn’t realize you had to take the blades out of it.
Des: I understand. Also been there.
Alex: I remember taking a shaving razor and just being like, “Why isn’t this… this isn’t doing anything.” It’s not even scratching. Like, it’s literally just taking the hair off my arm. That’s pretty much what it was and that’s a pretty comical memory for me because, in hindsight, obviously, you had to take the things out. Like, duh. But that was the first time I tried.
Two years later (so, 14) was the first time that I actually—I don’t remember the first time when I cut cut. I don’t really remember it, but I cut every day at least once for several years. Like many, many years. I mean, it just is what it was, I guess. After a while, I hated it. At first, it was very much attention-seeking and it wasn’t so much coping. It was very much attention-seeking and then after a while, I realized that it made me feel better. It was a coping thing. That was kind of my thing. I would get home and I would go and I would sit in the shower, and that’s what I did every day. This is weird, but I used to paint with my blood because I thought it was funny. I was sort of this angsty teenager that was like, “My soul’s black.”
I liked the way that the cuts looked on thighs better. I guess I hated my legs and I didn’t think about that connection for a long time, but I didn’t like my legs. I was not happy with them, so I was like, “Fuck ’em.”
It was easier to hide, because my friends would get really upset when they saw that; I had gloves that I would wear, and it was really obvious. It would be in the middle of the summer and I’d be wearing a tank top and gloves. And everyone would know. They’d be like, “Alex.”
And I was like, “I know.”
I experimented with burning for a little while, but it hurt too much in the moment, whereas cutting didn’t hurt right when I cut. It hurt after.
Alex: Yeah. And that was fine. I didn’t mind. I have a pretty high pain tolerance, so that doesn’t really bother me, but the after pain was okay.
Des: How do you feel about the scars? Do you feel shameful, still, now? What’s your relationship with them? You mentioned you don’t know if they’ll ever go away. I can confirm that they probably won’t.
Alex: For a really long time I was ashamed of them. I worked at a sleepaway camp and I would wear bracelets all over this arm, ’cause the ones here—it’s kind of hard to see, but these are thick. They were pink for years. Those I was particularly afraid of; these, you couldn’t really see unless they’re in the light the right way. I don’t know, I don’t really feel any particular way about them now. When people ask me, I just tell them. I don’t feel the need to lie. In some ways, I almost feel like it’s kind of spreading awareness. They are what they are and I don’t really like the ones on my thighs, but that’s just because I don’t really like my thighs and that doesn’t help. Now I wear bathing suits and the ones on my thighs are thick, like the ones on my arm so they look like stretch marks; that makes me unhappy. But I don’t know. Other than the fact that they’re just not terribly pleasing to the eye, I’m not embarrassed of them. I’m pretty open about my mental health and my recovery, in general. I guess I have to be, being a peer.
Des: Beautiful segue, because that’s where I was going next.
Alex: Being a peer, I’m pretty used to people asking me questions, or volunteering information when it’s appropriate about my mental health, so I’m okay with it. Most of the time I forget about them. I haven’t had anyone ask me about them in a really long time. When people ask me now, it catches me off-guard because I’m not used to it anymore. When I was younger I was so used to people asking ’cause they were obvious and they were bright red and people were like, “What happened?” I used to tell people I got bit by a dog, which is totally not believable, but that’s what I said.
Des: I used to “get in fights with my cat.”
Alex: There you go. Everyone has one. One or two excuses. I just don’t feel any way about them now. In a way, I kind of love them, just because I guess they’re a part of my story. It is what it is. I survived shit that sucked and it’s just part of the history of what I went through.
Des: A road map.
Alex: Yes! I like that. A road map.
Des: What about getting into peer counseling and being a peer counselor? You and your sister do really similar work.
Alex: I love that about being in the same field as Sam. It’s super cool. This is gonna sound super cheesy, but she’s kind of my idol. Don’t tell her I said that; it’ll boost her ego way too much. She’ll be like, “Oh, huh!” She’s awesome, and she does work that I don’t want to do—macro. I’m much more clinical. But I got started when I moved down here. I kind of always knew that this was kind of what I wanted to do.
I’ve kind of always wanted to work in mental health, and this isn’t my end game and I’ll get into that in a second. But I came down and Sam was working at Family and Children’s Services and she was doing the suicide hotline and I really wanted to do it. She helped me; she gave me the information and I interviewed and I started as a volunteer working for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. They liked me and so they hired me. I stayed there for a couple years and then there was just some politics, as there always are. Shit just got really crappy there and I decided that I needed something different, ’cause I felt like I was no longer valued there. I really wanted to be a facilitator for the survivors of suicide and they totally looked over me and it was—there was a bunch of shit that I was really unhappy with. I think they’re a great agency overall, I just didn’t appreciate the way that I was treated in the end.
I moved over to [another agency]. I did the same thing, pretty much. I answered a hotline. Then I moved over to follow-up work. It was part of a SAMHSA grant. I would call people who had been recently discharged from a hospital for suicide-related crisis and I would call them and make sure they’re okay. Then that grant changed into face-to-face services. Because of that and the fact that I didn’t have a degree, they wanted me to get this training so I could at least say that I had a peer support state training.
I got that and then I quit that job because that was when I got really depressed and I did several no-call, no-shows. I feel really horrible because that job was really nice to me and I totally fucked them over ’cause they put me on administrative leave, paid, and then I quit. I couldn’t deal with having to face them after everything, so I quit.
Des: Was this last year?
Alex: Yeah. That was last year. Now I’m at [a new agency], and I’m doing very different work now because I have housing. It’s independent. I’m doing independent housing and it’s kind of like case management, essentially. Which I like, it’s just not my favorite. I liked crisis work—it’s immediate gratification. People are very grateful when you talk to them—talk them off the bridge for lack of a better way to put it, which is literally what happened sometimes. You connect differently when people are in the middle of crisis. Because of my experience with it, the connections that I’ve made with people when talking to them on the crisis hotline, while draining, I got so much satisfaction out of that. Whereas now, I get that every once in a while, where I’ll really connect with someone, but it’s not on the same level, because usually, they’re pretty okay, ’cause they’re in independent housing, so they’ve been stable for a while. I feel like, in some ways, “Ugh.” I’d kind of like to go back to crisis work. So, I’m doing that now.
Des: Being a peer—what’s the end game?
Alex: End game is I want to be a mental health nurse practitioner. I’d kind of wanted to do that for a while. This has been a good four years now of me being pretty sure that’s what I want to do. I’m in school, trying to get into the nursing program. It’s really hard. I’ll have to get my master’s after my bachelor’s. I like the idea of being able to prescribe and my thought is—just the experience that I had with med providers.
First of all, a lot of times, they’re assholes. I think it’s ridiculous that you should have to see a med provider and a therapist. I think it should be an all-encompassing thing. If you’re prescribing psychiatric meds, you should be incorporating some kind of psychotherapy. There’s no way that someone should be just getting meds and not therapy.
But a lot of people can’t afford to do both and the meds are more important for some people than therapy. I don’t like that, so I want to be able to do both; that’s kind of what my med provider does now, actually. I have a therapist that’s separate because she specializes in trauma and that’s what I wanted. My med provider now has a master’s in counseling and a master’s in nursing, so he does both, which I think is so cool. That’s really what I want to do. I’m hoping maybe to work in a psychiatric hospital. I want to do low income, probably, just ’cause there’s such a great need.
[My sister] wants to go into social work, and since Sam’s in social work, we talked about how we could open a private practice together and we could call it TriNad, which I think is great. It would be super funny. Olivia could do outreach and Sam could do advocacy and I could do med provision. It would be great. And therapy. That’s something we talked about. That’s what I want to do ultimately, but it’s gonna be a while. It’s just taking me forever to get through undergraduate, just with having to take mental health breaks and whatnot. Working doesn’t help with that part.
Des: What good has come out of your experiences?
Alex: A lot, I feel like. I hate that I had to go through that. I hate that I still have to go through that sometimes, but I feel like it allows me to connect with people differently and with more depth, which I love. I really like having conversations—I hate small talk, like, I hate it. I’m all about sitting and talking—and some people get really uncomfortable about that and that’s totally okay, but I feel like a lot of my relationships have been so valuable just because the connection is on a different level because of the experience that I have. Maybe in some ways, a different appreciation for life, just because there were times and still are times when I really didn’t want to be here. When I do want to be here, I feel pretty good about that.
I think Sam and I also are able to connect on a different level as sisters because of that shared experience that we have. Which is very different, both of our experiences—I think our suicidality forms differently, too, but ultimately we both know what it’s like to get to a point where you’re just like, “Fuck it! Fuck everything! Fuck all of you!” You know?
My job is so rewarding, what I do. I can’t imagine, now, doing a job that I’m not passionate about. I would never want to go back to that; a need that’s driving everything is passion for the field and for helping people. It’s not so much helping as it is connecting, I would say. In connecting, you help I suppose, but it’s the connection more than anything else.
Des: Is suicide still an option for you?
Alex: Um, yeah. I mean truthfully, I think it will always be… not quite in the center of the table, but a little bit there—almost knocked off, but not quite. Just because I think that I’m always gonna have those thoughts, and so I don’t think that it would be honest to say that it’s not an option. I really try not to go in that direction and I’ve gotten to a point now where if I am suicidal, I’m pretty good at saying, “Hey! Before I get to the point that I don’t want to tell someone, let me tell you about this,” because there’s that certain point where you’re like, “I don’t want to tell anybody because I don’t want anybody to stop me.”
I think that goes for a lot of mental health-related stuff, where you get to a point where you’re so unwell that you’re almost thriving in your unwellness. I find that to be the case with my eating disorder a lot. I don’t want help because that means I’m going to get better and that means I’m gonna gain weight. The same with the self-harming—it was that way too. I didn’t want to tell people about it because I wanted to continue doing it. I’ve tried to not let myself get to that point, where I’m not telling, ’cause it’s the secrecy when it’s really problematic for me.
I guess it will always kind of be on the table as a thought, just because I think I’m always gonna have suicidal thoughts, which sucks. I wish I didn’t, but it is what it is.
Thanks to Sarah Fleming for providing the transcription to Alex’s interview, and to Liza Walter for editing.