Anna Carlsonis a suicide attempt survivor.
"I survived a suicide attempt."
Anna Carlson was a 23 year old student and baker when I interviewed her in Portland, OR, on August 01, 2014.
My depression started when I was sixteen.
My parents announced to my sister and I that they were going to be getting a divorce. I was totally expecting it. It wasn’t a surprise. However, both of them decided to fight for full custody. In order to do that, they both decided that neither of them were going to move out because it lessened their chances of getting full custody. We all lived together in the same house for a year. It wasn’t a happy divorce. That definitely led to a toxic and stressful environment at home, which led to my depression.
I didn’t realize it was depression at first. I kind of noticed that I wasn’t myself. I did the little online quiz thing that said it was “mild.” Mild, to me, said I didn’t need to worry about it until it started to escalate.
[I had] been thinking about death a lot. There was a point when I realized I knew exactly how I was going to kill myself. I was on my way to school, and that’s what freaked me out. I realized I was terrified because I didn’t necessarily want to die. I just really wanted out of the situation I was in. I went and told my school counselor. It was a shock when she told me that she had to call my parents. I wasn’t really thinking about the situation, I was just freaking out and didn’t know who to talk to about it.
My parents told me that day that they had hid all of their medication in the household, which I found within twenty-four hours. I didn’t tell them that I knew exactly where they had hid it. I was taken to a doctor and put on medication. The antidepressants I was put on escalated my depression probably four times. It was extremely severe. I was very much a walking zombie. I didn’t want to eat much, so I didn’t. I only went to school because I was afraid that if I, for whatever reason, made it through, I would have to repeat school again.
In the beginning of the depression, I actually thought I was physically ill because I had never felt like not getting out of bed for any reason other than having the flu or something like that. As it escalated, there were two people who kept me wanting to keep trying not to attempt suicide: they were two of my best friends who I’m still really close with. One of them is the only person who could still make me laugh at that point, and the other one has just always been there for me.
One of them went on a six-week exchange student program over the summer. Before she left, she made me promise that I wouldn’t attempt suicide while she was gone, which I was furious about, but I promised her. When we messaged while she was gone, I lied to her and told her that I was probably feeling better and was doing fine, because I didn’t want to ruin her trip. That’s what kept me going for a long time. About three days before she came back, I realized that it didn’t matter whether I died, if she was here or gone, so I just overdosed.
A lot of people came to my house because they knew what I was doing. I ended up promptly going to the hospital and was put in the psych ward, which was not a fun experience. Once in the psych ward, though, I did feel almost immediately better, because I was removed from my situation and didn’t have to think about any of the stressors in my life.
One of the group therapy sessions that we did in there was to go in a circle and, on a scale of one to ten, rate how we were doing that day, and we had to talk about what we were thinking about. I remember, one day, I was like, “You know, I’m a seven. I genuinely am feeling better one hundred percent. I really don’t think I am ever going to attempt suicide again.”
The doctor said, “Well, statistically, eighty-six percent of people who have attempted suicide are going to try again,” and then moved on to the next person.
That is probably the only thing that anybody said to me in there that has stuck with me. I was really, really angry that anyone who was genuinely trying to feel better was told that they weren’t going to succeed in it anyway, so why bother? It stuck with me because I have not attempted again.
In the psych ward, you’re not allowed to talk to anyone, really, outside of family, but my mom had given my friend who had been out of town access to call me. When she landed home, we were able to talk. I felt that was actually beneficial to my healing and not problematic because I had never lied to her before that and she was really upset that I lied. Also, the following promise of never again trying to harm myself has stuck with me during my healing process.
Even though my depression was situational, it still stuck around after the situation was gone. I reacted poorly to just about any medication I tried after that. Eventually, I ended up finding an over-the-counter [medication], not necessarily intended as an antidepressant, but it worked as a mood stabilizer. It helped a lot when I realized that I needed to start exercising, eating healthy, and changing my thought process, in general, outside of the depression. Once the depression is diminished enough, it’s easier to figure out your thoughts. With the depression, there’s no way you can reshape how you’re thinking, because it’s a completely different thought pattern.
Des: Tell me more about the experience with the hospital and doctor, on the whole, and then that specific doctor. What did you say after that?
Anna: He moved on, didn’t even look at me. I’m sure my eyebrows were raised and my mouth was open because I was completely in shock that he was like, “Yeah, okay. That’s nice, but you’re wrong.”
Particularly involving something from my own personal life that he knew nothing about, other than the reason that I was there. I was not trying to lie my way out of getting out of the psych ward, so I was just in complete shock and anger. Which is why it’s the only sentence out of any doctor in that psych ward that I remember clearly. I don’t remember the person’s name, but I was just furious. It still makes me mad that anyone would say that to someone to try to make them feel better—that they’re not going to ever feel better, so why bother? This is how I took it. Particularly when working in a psych ward with usually mentally unstable people who are trying to find a way to heal.
Des: It’s the best example of compassion I’ve ever heard.
Anna: Yeah. Great.
Des: What about everyone else? Do you feel like they generally treated you well?
Anna: I feel like part of the issue that I had with my parents is, prior to this depression, I had no emotionally traumatic event I’ve ever had to deal with. I’d always been very happy, so I didn’t know how to deal with, suddenly, the extreme opposite of that. Because of that, because of all the stigma, and the fact that very few people openly talk about depression, I didn’t communicate how I was feeling with anybody. I felt like I wasn’t allowed to.
I feel like I could’ve done better if I had told my parents what my thought process was. They could only view things from the outside and had no idea the reasoning for why I was thinking or wanting different things.
There was one moment I remember just lying on the floor in my room doing nothing, because that’s what I did with the severe depression. [My mom] walked in and she told me, “I’m sorry.”
I was like, “Sorry for what?”
She said, “It’s my fault you feel this way,” because she was the one who wanted the divorce initially. She kind of stood there for a moment before she left. I didn’t think she would ever really blame herself for how I felt. I didn’t feel like I had a reason to blame the way I was feeling on anyone, because no one did anything… It was just a constant state of being miserable for a long time. I never really pointed it at anybody. But now she knows that I don’t blame her. I never have blamed her for that.
Overall, we’re all a lot happier after the situation. My friends… most of them stayed around. There were a few, I think, who melted away after that whole situation. Probably because they realized they couldn’t help me. They didn’t know how to be my friend if they couldn’t help me in that way anymore, which I totally understood. But like I said, the really close friends stuck around and continued to support me. I never received any backlash from general classmates or people who I’m sure heard about it. No one ever said anything. They were more concerned for my general state of being.
Des: Do you still deal with suicidal thoughts at all?
Anna: No. Not at all. It has been over a year since I stopped any form of medication and I’m very happy. I still have random bouts of what I would consider mild depression every once in a while, which helps me put in perspective how different my life is and how I know how to cope with it now. You know, no one tells you how to deal with it, so you just do what you feel like doing.
Des: Lying on the floor.
Anna: Yeah, exactly. Not getting out of bed, calling in sick. Sometimes it’s okay to just stay there for a while, but it depends on the situation. I know what I need to do. Sometimes I will reach out to someone, let them know how I’m feeling that day and what I need, because sometimes what I need is not what I want. It’s sometimes hard to do that.
Generally, the one piece of advice I always had was that exercising helps alleviate depression—or at least helps along with the medication or therapy or anything else that I thought was a load of crap for the longest time. Until I finally did it and was like, “Oh my god. There’s a reason they suggest to do this.” I continue to do that for my mental health.
Des: This is a question I ask everyone, and now I’m interested in your answer. Is suicide still an option?
Anna: No. Not for me. I have a lot of things I want to do before I die. It’s not even something that crosses my mind anymore. Even as a “what if” situation. Sometimes they give the worst possible situations in your life of what horrible things could happen to you—I don’t think I would even attempt suicide if other external things were occurring. Primarily because I know the aftermath of how everyone around me reacted and felt due to my action.
For me, personally, it felt very selfish. I still feel guilt toward how I basically traumatized all the people who cared about me in my life. My thought process initially used to be like, “It’ll hurt them, but they’ll get over it. It’s not like they’ll forget, but they’ll move on and be okay.”
I think, after having seen people lose others in their life, it’s never that they move on. They’re not quite okay. They’re okay in a different sense, but it still hurts for a long time. So, I think that’s the main reason, in addition to being in a healthy, stable place now.
Des: Do you think suicide is selfish?
Anna: I think it depends entirely on the situation. The important thing to know is that every situation is different. Even just reading through your website, I was surprised that it wasn’t all depression. That’s how I had always perceived it in my own mind because that’s how my experience was.
I remember reading a lot about physician-assisted [dying]—people who are already terminally ill and they just don’t want to deal with that. I think that’s entirely not selfish at all. I’ve had friends who’ve had to watch and take care of those who were extremely ill, and it’s definitely hard.
However, I think there are certain situations where it is a very selfish act. I think also a lot of it is not knowing what else to do to alleviate the pain that they’re in, and they’re not doing it intentionally to hurt other people.
Des: Do you know much about the resources in Portland?
Anna: I know there’s a few hotlines. I don’t know about any specific nonprofits in Portland. I know more about the international ones. [Ed. note: Lines for Life is Portland’s local crisis resource.]
Des: Do you feel like the resources would be available to you if you needed them?
Des: Would you use them?
Anna: I believe so, yes.
Des: Would you go to the hospital? Or would you do something else?
Anna: No. Definitely not. Unless I felt that I could not control my actions in general, I would not go to the hospital for mental illness anymore. I would probably seek medication and help from other sources. Absolutely.
Des: Tell me why you wouldn’t go to the hospital.
Anna: My experience was not positive. There are plenty of other things I remember from being in there. None of the doctors felt like they were necessarily there to help me. They were there to prescribe medications, and wait until you could go home.
Some of the people who were in there felt like their parents had tossed them in there for really ridiculous reasons and they really didn’t need to be there. Someone had just run away from home a bunch of times, so their parents thought there was something wrong with them and put them in the hospital.
Des: Chill out here first.
Anna: Yeah. It didn’t seem like a healing environment.
Des: Since you were a minor when it happened, do you know anything about the process of being put in an involuntary hold? Were you handcuffed? How did you get to the hospital?
Anna: My dad drove me. Then I was put in an ambulance and driven to the other hospital, to the psych ward. I do not believe I was handcuffed, because I was still very drugged up at that point. There still wasn’t any real possibility for me to try to do anything because I was basically asleep.
Des: If you were to give advice or say something to someone who was reading your story on the website, what would you say?
Anna: It’s often very hard to tell when someone has any sort of mental illness. Like, if I thought of a face with mental illness, there’s not a face I could put with it that connected. A lot of people are very surprised when they find out that people have all these hidden things in their lives.It’s important to be open, accepting, and willing to help in ways they need help, not necessarily ways that you want to help them.
I think it’s important to offer an ear if they ever need it. [Be] willing to listen to them. I was always afraid to talk about it because I didn’t know what else to say other than that I was miserable.
Des: Since we’re in Oregon and it’s legal here, what do you think of the Death with Dignity Act? Does it count as suicide?
Anna: I don’t know if I would have a strong opinion about whether or not it counts as suicide. I think from what I remember, there’s a lot of paperwork and doctors involved before it’s even allowed. It’s not like, “Here’s what I want to do before the end of the day. You can take the medication to pass.” It’s a long, drawn out process. You really have to evaluate your situation, because doctors are usually meant to heal. While that could help you to not suffer, it goes [against] what doctors want to do as their profession. But I’m not against it. [Ed. note: The American Association of Suicidology put out a position statement in 2017 differentiating physician-assisted dying from suicide. Read it here.]
Des: Do you think mental illness is inherently connected to suicidal thoughts? Can you be suicidal without being mentally ill?
Anna: It depends how strongly you correlate depression with mental illness. I know there are plenty of people who just think about [suicide] as a prospect, not as an actual option. It’s an interesting idea to want to die. It could be more of a conversation than an actual consideration.
I think a lot of people who are physically ill end up with depression because it’s an awful experience to be physically ill. Whether it’s that they’re handicapped, have cancer, or whatever else. Then that would often lead to suicidal thoughts. I don’t know that I’ve necessarily come across a situation or someone suicidal, but not mentally ill in another aspect. That doesn’t mean it’s not possible.
Des: I’ve come across people in this past year who don’t believe in mental illness. Some people who have lived through suicide attempts, specifically, don’t believe in mental illness. It’s been something that I’ve been thinking about a bunch. I’ve kind of stopped focusing on mental illness and talking about mental illness in my work because I don’t know how I feel. I’m working through it.
Anna: It kind of goes along with our need to label things. Also, there has to be a reason that you wanted to die intentionally. You know, if you’re not particularly old.
For me, I feel like my thought process was drastically different. I didn’t feel like it was my own head that was telling me that everything around me was miserable. I can feel that when I have even mild depression. I’m like, “Whoa, my thoughts are drastically different today than they are normally.”
I feel it might be just a chemical imbalance, which is what it technically is, but I don’t know if that’s what makes it an illness, which is interesting. I don’t know enough about science to fix it.
Des: What’s the difference between physical illness and mental illness? Why is it okay to end your life if you have a physical or terminal illness, but not if you are having a really rough time in your head for a long time?
Anna: A lot of people are very visual. If you can see that someone is physically deteriorating, or will have to be bedridden because they literally can’t get out of bed, or they cannot eat without a tube, or whatever else the reasons may be, then they can understand. In other words, if they look at a person who says they can’t get out of bed because they just don’t want to and it hurts to have to move, but it’s just all in their head, a lot of people are very unsympathetic towards them. They feel like you’re just being dramatic. You know, “Get up. There’s no reason you should want to die, because it’s just in your head,” but just because it’s in your head doesn’t make it any less significant.
Des: Yeah. I mean, that’s where you live.
Anna: Yeah. I’ve seen plenty of very unsympathetic and not very understanding people. I think a lot of that has to do with a lack of education on the subject.
Des: Why are we afraid to talk about suicide, and how can we change that?
Anna: It’s a scary topic for a lot of people, because a lot of people are afraid of death. The fact that someone willingly, actively wants to die before nature intended them to is a weird thought. I think a lot of people also are very religious in this country and are very opposed to the concept, in general. I think being more accepting and willing to learn from each other is the best way to be able to talk about it more—be more accepting, in general. Want to listen to people’s stories, because everyone’s story is different, regardless of what the story’s about. People are very complex and it’s never just black and white.
Des: Do you think we should leave this one to the professionals? To do the educating and to do the talking?
Anna: No. Absolutely not… Every medication I was prescribed by a doctor didn’t work for me.I think the problem with that is, “Well, this didn’t work, so I’ll try this next one.” There was never any, like, “Let’s see how you are differentiating from this other person. This depression is different from this depression.” There’s really just a spectrum of how severe it is, and not what differentiates it between each individual, and I think that’s a problem. They don’t know enough about it.
I think they’ve helped a lot of people with the medication, but there’s also plenty of people who they’ve harmed. I remember, at one point, they told me, “This one should work because it’s had the highest success rate of any other medications.” It’s also the one I had severe side effects with.
It’s not something they’ll just bring up in every doctor appointment that you’ll have. They won’t ask, “Oh, do you know about mental illnesses?” Either you take a psychology class, you read some articles online, or you don’t realize that what you have is depression.
I’ve seen people online talking about, “I’ve been feeling like this. I don’t know why I’m feeling this way.”
I’m like, “Actually, that’s exactly like this mental illness that I’ve learned quite a bit about. I would suggest speaking to a doctor about it to see, because I am not a doctor.”
I think it’s something we could be discussing and learning about in general. I spend a lot of time right now online in this community, in this Facebook group. [There are] a lot of teenagers in it. I am shocked to see how many have depression or other mental disorders in general. There’s a lot of people who suffer from it. I feel like there’s a lot more than there should be right now, particularly with the amount of options available for healing. I think it’s something people should be aware about because it’s not just one in ten thousand people with depression or any other mental disorder. It’s a lot more prominent than people expect or realize.
I think it’s interesting that some employers do not want to hire someone based on their medical history, if it’s mental or if it’s just physical.
Des: Is that the thing that scared you about doing this?
Anna: Yes. Initially. Then I realized my current employer is incredible. She is a social advocate for a lot of things in Portland. First of all, I know that she’ll be nothing but supportive about this. But any employer in the future who would not want to hire me because I told this story is not someone I want to work with.
Des: That’s what I like to hear.
Anna: I just feel strongly about working for good people. I feel like if someone sees this and decides that something I did when I was seventeen one time, and then figured out and healed later on… I don’t think there’s a chance for a relapse for me. To not want to hire me because of that seems ridiculous.
Des: Yeah. I come across people fairly often who are like, “I’d do this if I could be anonymous,” or, “I’d do this if it wasn’t an issue with my job.” I respect that, but on the other hand, it’s the people like you who need to be telling their stories because that’s the only way this is gonna change.
Anna: Yeah, exactly.
Des: People can’t understand why it can’t be anonymous. We’ve been doing that, and it’s not working. I wanted Live Through This to be different, to try a new approach.
Anna: Yeah. People like an image. I think it’s great with all the photographs of people with their stories because they don’t fit a spectrum of similar looking people. It’s all varieties and backgrounds. It’s really interesting.
I think it’s helpful to see the visual, then read the story, and just be like, “This story is completely different from that story. And that one’s completely different from this.” I think it’s helpful for people to see that and realize that you can’t put suicide attempts into little boxes, or one big box, like it’s all the same.
It’s important to talk about because we can be helping these situations and people. I mean, I’m not saying you have to go out and start telling every single person your story. It’s hard to do and it’s a journey. But I think it’s important to not hide from it. You can help people with just sharing your experiences.
That was another thing I realized. I felt helped in just learning other people’s experiences. That was the other reason I wanted to do this. I wanted to hopefully help someone who had heard my story.
Des: It happens often that someone will meet with me and say, “Well, I don’t know if my story is ‘good enough,’ because I don’t know why I was depressed. I don’t know why this happened.” When I hear these stories… these are the ones that you need to hear, more than any of the other ones…
Anna: I think that older people, middle-aged and above, also have severe depression. They have the same situation. I get the general glimpse of everyone around me appearing to be successful, working hard, being happy, and not suffering from mental illnesses. Then I realize it’s completely not true.
Again, with this Facebook group, [I’m] looking at a lot of teens who have a lot more depression stories than I could even believe. I didn’t know anyone around me who was suffering in the same way—that I could physically see, anyway. I think it’s important to know that people of all ages and spectrums have similar situations, even though they’re caused or started by different things.
Des: Do you know anybody who’s died by suicide?
Anna: Yes. We were good friends from junior high through high school. We kind of lost touch for a while because she was going through a lot of stuff. I found out later she was bipolar. We met up during college at one point and she seemed to be doing really well. She was going to be a nurse. Two years later, she [died by] suicide. I was shocked and upset about it.
She hadn’t talked to anybody about it. People thought she should stop taking her medication. They said, “She’s fine.”
That happens with a lot of people. They think, “Well, I’m happy. Now I don’t need my medication,” when it’s really the medication that helps. Which is why, even if the medication doesn’t work for me, I don’t advocate that everyone should avoid medication, because it does help a lot of people.
But it hurt me knowing that I wasn’t there to talk to her, even though we really hadn’t stayed in touch much.
Des: Do you know how people reacted to it?
Anna: I know some people were shocked from our high school. No one knew. She was well-liked.
Her parents, of course, were devastated. Her siblings were devastated, because they were all younger. Just a lot of love for her. No one talked about the bipolar; it was more that she was gone and didn’t need to be gone.
Des: Do you feel like there’s anything we left out?
Anna: I feel like, during the point when I had really severe depression, I also had a lot of anger toward both of my parents. I never expressed that really to them. I basically just avoided home as much as I could, which is why I went to friends who could make me laugh every day. That helped me realize that it’s okay, that I could still, sometimes, be happy for two seconds.
There was some advice someone had given me during that period, which was to write down ten things I was grateful for. At first, it was a great idea. It could be anything. It didn’t have to be some grandiose thing. It could be that I was happy the sun was shining that day.
It started out fine, and then it became really hard to write down ten. Then it decreased down to eight, then seven, then four, and then I had two. It got to the point where I didn’t care about anything at all, which was really difficult for me to do. Some days I could only think of one thing. Some days I was just baffled when I couldn’t think of anything, because I was just filled with extreme apathy for everything.
So, I think it depends. You could try to push people with depression to see the good in general, but it’s hard, when it’s really severe, to pick up on that. You can see why other people would like it, but you can’t see why you should care.
I’d also heard, “Look at these awful things happening elsewhere and be grateful that you don’t have that.” I remember watching this Oprah video of her school in Africa in health class. I had to leave because I felt so horrible that I still felt this way; even though these people were in such an awful situation, I still felt like dying. Even if I lived in the suburbs, I didn’t have any money concerns, I went to a really nice school. It just made me feel worse that I felt that way. It’s not just that you’re sad. It’s so much more extreme than being sad.
So, there are things that, in theory, would make sense if you don’t have depression. But if you do, it makes it very hard to comprehend. I think that’s important for people who are trying to help others with depression to realize—it’s not the same logical thought process.
I think what helped me a lot was having a support system, which was more my friends than my parents. I couldn’t talk to my parents because they were the stemming root of my situation. Even though I didn’t necessarily put the blame on them, it just felt difficult to talk about why they were upsetting me. [My friends] would always listen. Even if they couldn’t help me, just being there to listen always helped. I think that’s important for those trying to help anyone else—just being accepting, listening, and offering advice when you think you can or when it’s wanted. Some people don’t want advice, they just want you to listen.
There were a few times, even after getting out of the hospital, that I felt suicidal. It wasn’t regular, but there were a few days that it was really hard. Having already gone through the attempt and realizing that there were people who were torn apart helped me keep on going through that day, because it wasn’t as hard as it was before.
So, I think the support system is important. Not everyone has that support system, which is really hard for me to comprehend, because I’ve always had that support system. But I think even if you don’t actively have someone in your life who you can talk to, there are still people who, if they heard your situation, would care very much. I’ve also seen that online. People who don’t know you at all are like, “I feel very strongly. I want you to be happy.” I think sometimes, the hardest step is reaching out in some way or another.
Des: I heard this great story the other day. This woman I interviewed, Stacy Barlow, said she called a random number out of a phone book one night when she was feeling really awful. This person helped her through a suicidal crisis. And she had no idea who they were.
Anna: Yeah. That’s amazing.
I heard this story a while ago. There’s this man who has since passed away. I don’t remember if it was Switzerland or if it was Sweden that he lived in, but he lived on the top of this big hill by this bridge that was famous for the amount of people who jumped off it to [end their lives]. He would sit by his window and when he would see someone, he would walk down and talk to them. His family calculated that he saved hundreds of lives just by talking to them. That’s how he spent his elder years—walking down, talking to people. He was very upset by the, like, three people he wasn’t able to save.
That, and I saw an old Humans of New York post the other day of this woman on a bridge. There was this long cement ledge that was leading out and then there was just open space. The picture was of her standing there. All of these people called the cops because she was just sitting there on this ledge. The cops asked what she was doing, and she said, “Enjoying life.”
She just wanted to sit and enjoy the view. She wasn’t going to jump or anything. I think that was interesting. It’s a very different perspective to have on being precariously perched on a ledge, just to enjoy the scenery.
Anna’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 to Taryn Balchunas for providing the transcription to Anna’s interview, and to Sara Wilcox for editing.