Ashley Loftinis a suicide attempt survivor.
"I survived a suicide attempt."
Ashley Loftin is originally from Arkansas, but lives in Boston, MA. She was 23 years old and working as a barista when I interviewed her in Chicago, IL, on March 30, 2016.
It’s hard to begin.
I guess I first realized that I needed help for something when I was eleven or so. I was in the car with my father and I asked him if I could see a counselor because I was feeling sad, but it felt abnormal. I was stressed. I couldn’t sleep.
Whenever I would have sleepovers with someone, I would, at the end of the night, always make them cry because I would speak about death. As an eleven year old, I guess I brought it to their attention more fully with my descriptors.
I was afraid of dying because, when I was eleven, my step-mother died in a car accident. I became aware of what the dying process might be like by hearing how she died of internal bleeding. I was kind of obsessed with what death is and what it was like. I really feared what death would be for me, and the fact that I couldn’t control it, like how or when it would come.
So, I would go to sleepovers, speak about death, and make the children sad and cry. I didn’t make friends very easily because of it. I didn’t feel very much like other people at that time in my life.
I told my dad that I felt like I needed to speak to an adult that wasn’t him, because he was an alcoholicand it was difficult to reach him after my step-mother died. He wasn’t really present. He said no. He reacted very defensively. He said, “You’re not crazy. You don’t need to see a counselor.”
I was trying to learn how to cope with it myself. It’s weird when you’re very terrified of the concept of death and yet you kind of want to die. I think, for me, it was a control issue. I was very afraid of the suddenness of it because of how my step-mother died. I wanted to be able to control something that I really otherwise would have no control over.
Twelve to fourteen years old, I grew up sort of self-harming and doing the things that people do—the things that I did. Also a lot of research. I’m from Searcy, Arkansas. It’s very, very conservative. The town is essentially run by the Church of Christ. It was difficult to find resources for me, like in the school library, but what I could find, I read. Like, “Opposing Viewpoints: Suicide.” “Anxiety.” “This is Depression.” These very broad definitions, you know, not really explaining. I read fiction books about people who were depressed. I was just researching. I think essentially what I was trying to do was learn how to not die, how to not kill myself, and be comfortable with the feelings I was having. I sort of tried to meditate because people [do that to] try to relax.
I felt bad because my little brother is three years younger than I am and I kind of involved him in this quest to cope with these things at such a young age. By the time I was fourteen, he would have been eleven. As a child, he was literally and figuratively cleaning my wounds. But I didn’t have anyone else that could do that for me, and we were very close.
My anxiety, insomnia, fears of death, and control issues built up and accumulated. I have this obsession with perfectionism that also plays into it. I was fifteen and very hard on myself about my grades still; I got a bad Geometry grade and it just sent me over the edge. It seems really random if you tell people, “I got a bad Geometry grade.” I [attempted] suicide. It sounds very shallow, but there were so many more things at play there. It wasn’t the Geometry grade, really. It was the fact that I had been feeling some way a really long time and then finally I just had it. I tried to kill myself, I think it was in April of 2008, just shy of my sixteenth birthday.
Des: What happened afterward?
Ashley: I was put in the hospital. I was in the hospital for two days and then I was sent to a psych ward in the teenagers unit. It was so strange. They told me that I was the first person they had ever had who said they researched beforehand, trying to not die, essentially. They were like, “You’re the first person we’ve had in here who ever said they read books on it.”
I can kind of see where they were coming from. From being in there the short time I was in there, the other kids that were in there… some people would react really violently toward themselves on a whim. I mean, there are other things at play, but I was baffled by it as well. It didn’t make sense to me, but I was like, “Okay.”
I can remember some condescension from the psychiatrists and a lot of assumptions, like my dad sexually abused me. He’s a single father; it was me, him, and my brother. There were a lot of assumptions about that which weren’t true, and it was almost like I had to say it many times, “No, this did not happen.” They just thought that it did. I don’t know. It didn’t happen.
One psychiatrist made me look him in the eye for an extended period of time because I had trouble making eye contact, with men specifically, which I think is why. I just have a weird thing with authority where I don’t like to look. It isn’t men, specifically—like these very strong intimidating presences, I don’t like to make eye contact. I feel like that’s normal. Relatively.
Des: You’re pretty good with eye contact.
Ashley: Thank you. I think that in general I am. Of course, back then, I feel like I was also a little different than I am now.
The night that I was admitted into the psych ward, my grandmother—I always remember this—put her hand over my hand and said, “Just think of it as a vacation.” It rings through my head every time. It wasn’t much like a vacation.
I got out and things were really weird at home because my dad thought that everybody—and a lot of the family did—blamed him. My grandmother is the one who found me, essentially, and I remember she was getting me up, changing my clothes, and getting me out to the ER. I remember him saying in the background, “They’re going to take my kids away from me! They’re going to take my kids away from me!” It wasn’t much about what had happened with me, it was more so what was going to happen to him, do you know what I mean? When I got out, I tried to joke around with him. I was trying to ease the tension. He wasn’t having any of it. I don’t think that he really knew how to cope with it, and I felt very bad for him. But also, I kind of came out with a very, “I don’t give a fuck,” sort of attitude. I got a little bit more like that.
When I went back to school, which would be like a week later, I had a bandage on my wrist and everybody knew what had happened. There were suicide hotline posters up that weren’t there before. There was a lot of whispers and sympathetic looks from teachers. And the principal pulled me aside, trying to see where I was at, mentally. People didn’t really know what to make of me because I was the first one to try it who most people knew. After I tried it, a lot of other kids tried it. At least, sort of tried it. I felt like a lot of that blame got placed on me because I was the first. It’s weird, because our town isn’t super small for Arkansas, but it’s like twenty thousand people or eighteen thousand people, something in that range. But it was public school and the only public school in the town, so I felt very targeted for the blame of a lot of things that happened after.
But I had a really good friend group. I have three best friends and I still consider them my best friends. They got me through the worst of what happened in the last two years of high school, because I was a sophomore at the time. The last two years of high school were weird at first, but you get used to it. Also, I always felt kind of weird, so it wasn’t really much different. I was just weird in a different way. And then I got into college.
Ashley: No, I went to college in Arkansas. My best friend went to college in Boston at MIT. I stayed behind. I went to the cheapest public college in Arkansas, but I had a full ride because of academics. There was no way that I could have gone without my academic scholarship. I ended up getting to stay in the Honors dorm and got to do all that stuff. I got my degree in Media there.
It’s weird because even though I [attempted] suicide when I was fifteen or sixteen, I feel like the worst times of my life actually happened later, like times I struggled with suicidal ideation. Ever since then, it still crosses my mind every now and then. Especially if I get really sad and I’m in that state of mind and I think about it.
I thought about it a lot in college. I was three hours away from my family, and I had a lot trouble making friends the first two years. All my best friends that I grew up with were all over the place, so for the first two years, I felt really alone. Then I got a boyfriend and felt like that ruined my life after that ended. Wonder if he’ll read this. Probably not.
Des: Talk more about how it ruined your life versus all of the things that led up to that Geometry test. And why your reaction was different; why didn’t you try to kill yourself then?
Ashley: I don’t know, honestly. I feel like if there was a time that I really felt like I would, it would have been that time. I hadn’t really had a boyfriend. What happened in college is that I lost a lot of weight. When I was in high school, I was two hundred and fifty pounds as my highest weight, and I was teased my entire life. That’s one reason I was really sad in high school, because I was teased a lot. I had short, spiky hair, safety pins in my ears, and the black makeup. I was teased a lot for my sense of style, how I presented myself, and my weight most of all.
When I got into college, I couldn’t make friends easily, so I started focusing really hard on fitness and eating. I became a little bit too obsessed with that. By the time I was a sophomore in college, I had lost one hundred pounds. I gained half of it back, which I’m way more okay with now than I would have been then.
So, I lost one hundred pounds and I started getting a lot attention from boys, which never happened before. I never really had a boyfriend until I was a junior in college. I sort of fell in love with this guy who was in a relationship, but left that relationship to be with me for a very short time. We went on a cross-country road trip together and I moved in with him very quickly. The relationship, honestly, only lasted three months. It’s the only relationship that I’ve had, but I was into it. I was really into it.
Des: That’s some lesbian shit right there. Give me any opportunity to make a lesbian joke.
Ashley: I welcome lesbian jokes. Please insert them as you will.
Des: Go forth.
Ashley: I moved in with him. This was over a summer. We were essentially together for the summer. We went back to school, he saw his ex, and was like, “Uhhh.” His exact words were, “I don’t think I love you now as much as I loved her then.” I was like, “Okay. Well, that’s it.” I got the impression from our conversation that he wanted to keep me waiting to feel out how he felt about the two of us, but I said, “Nah. It’s me or her right now.” And it was her.
It’s kind of weird in hindsight. The relationship wasn’t really that great. If we weren’t on the road, we were kind of in his room, locked away. He was very mean to his mother and there were things that were real problems that I ignored because I was lovestruck or whatever. But when that relationship ended, it was really sudden to me. We weren’t having any problems that I could see at the time, so I didn’t see it coming at all. It shattered me.
I missed class for weeks. I worked for the newspaper at the time, so I started bringing coffee with whisky in it into the office. I was crying all the time. There were times that I was so upset that I couldn’t speak. It was a really scary time. The drinking got really out of hand. I was sort of well-known, I guess, within the media department. All my professors loved me. Suddenly, my junior year, here I am just really fucking up. I got banned from the media conference that we went to every fall and spring; there was one in each. One was in Chicago. But I got really wasted in New Orleans and ended up in the ER because I got an anxiety attack. I was asking people to kill my ex-boyfriend, but I don’t remember any of it. I crashed somebody’s engagement party.I don’t remember that part. Then I’m in the ER the next day, my advisor’s sitting with me, and I get banned from the next trip, which was to New York.
So, that happened. I don’t actually mind telling this part because I feel like I hit what I would consider a rock bottom. I had a really good reputation. I was a very hard worker. I was a good writer, I was a good journalist. I had broken out of my shell, I wasn’t so shy. I could sit and interview people. Even with video production, I loved what I was doing. And then suddenly, I’m a whole different person to my peers and to my professors. It was a really low time for me. I was thinking about suicide like every day. Every day. Very seriously considering it.
I don’t really know what stopped me. Maybe it was the fact that when I was a teenager, I’d never been really out of the South. I’d been to the surrounding states for maybe a little bit, but I’d never traveled. When I was a teenager, I grew up sort of in poverty. I didn’t think it was possible that I could travel, but by the time this all happened, I had been to Chicago and New Orleans, I’d been to New York a couple of times, I’d been to Boston to visit my best friend. I had seen other things, things that could happen. I think it was knowing that there were things out there that existed beyond where I was at the time, and I always had plans to get out of Arkansas as soon as possible.
There were a lot of calls to my grandmother, a couple to my dad, and some to my godmother, just crying, having them comfort me, and that sort of thing. Also the hope of things being different eventually, and of my life getting better. I could see that there was that possibility. I knew that it existed somewhere. It wasn’t the same I could say for when I was a teenager, I had never been anywhere, and I had only known one thing. It was not the greatest thing to know. I was just such a serious kid. I feel like I got old really quick. I feel younger now than I did then.
Des: That’s funny. What made you move to Boston? Besties?
Ashley: I was going through this really volatile time after the relationship and the anxiety attack in New Orleans. All of this stuff happened. I was actually hospitalized a second time for homicidal ideation, which sounds really serious, but the way that my brain works is that I get stuck on a thought and the thought is usually something that makes me really anxious. Like if I get stuck on an evil thought or something—something that I consider evil—and the thought scares me, but then I keep thinking about it and I can’t stop thinking about it, then I get more and more anxious. So, it says “homicidal ideation” on my file, but what it really was was just a really bad anxiety attack and a lot of fear.
Des: Who were we homiciding, the boyfriend?
Ashley: No, actually. I was home for winter break and it was my family. The reason why it caused me so much anxiety is because it’s not like me. It really isn’t. I love my family very much, and having a thought like that scared me. To be stuck on that thought scared me more. So, I just had a really bad anxiety attack because I had a thought that scared me, and that happens a lot.
Des: Makes sense.
Ashley: But then in outpatient, I got a new diagnosis, which at the time made a lot of sense to me. It was borderline. A lot of the behaviors after the relationship were promiscuous.
So, I was having a hard time and my best friend lives in Boston. She had for the past four years. She had moved in with her boyfriend and had been living with him for a while, and their roommate moved out. When that happened, she contacted me and said, “After you graduate, come live up here.” Essentially, that’s what I did. I graduated. I worked for a little bit at this old job; I used to work on construction sites doing telecommunication work. I worked that for a bit and things got worse and worse in my head. I was calling my godmother every day, afraid that I was going to kill myself. There were times that I would sit and be really ready to do it, even when I knew that I was going to be moving to Boston.
I saved my last anxiety pill for the flight. I took it, I flew to Boston, and ever since I moved away, my outlook has been different. It’s weird; it’s not like the thoughts stop altogether and, of course, the first six months were really hard. There was still a little bit of a drinking issue, but I gained my footing. I’ve been there nearly two years now. I’ve built a life for myself.
I guess the worst thing for me in my life is to see the absence of possibility. If I’m in a place where I can’t see the possibility, then I don’t think that there is any point. I think that’s kind of my opinion for small things, too, like conversations. It’s why I didn’t fit in in Arkansas, because I don’t want to just talk to anybody about anything. I want to talk to people about important things, so I come off as really unfriendly.
Des: So, how do you feel about the weather, then?
Ashley: See, this is why being a barista was really difficult for me when I first started.
Des: Are you the one who’s making the drinks, instead of working the [counter]?
Ashley: We do all of it.
Des: You don’t work at a Starbucks, I’m guessing.
Ashley: I do not work at a Starbucks. I work at a small neighborhood cafe in the South End of Boston. I like to do it. I love the people that I work with. I moved up there, I had one hundred and eighty nine dollars in my pocket and I was like, “Let’s do this!” I got the job within, like, five days of moving there. I was really fortunate.
Because the first six months were so hard, I was still having some suicidal thoughts, but I would have either done something like that or I would have moved back home, which would have probably ended in that because at home, things shut off and possibility is gone again. I can’t see it. But whenever I’m out and in Boston, traveling and doing all of these things, the possibility is there. Even if I have a suicidal thought, I have every intention of pushing through it because I know that there’s something on the other side of it, every time.
If I hadn’t gotten the job at the cafe and the people there became my family; if that hadn’t happened, things might have turned out differently. But I work with great people and such compassionate people. I feel very deeply for them. I’m getting emotional talking about the people I work with, but their presence has been very important to me. My best friend, as well, who is still in Boston as a grad student for MIT. She’s a genius. A genius! Aeronautical engineer.
Des: Where’s your mom?
Ashley: My mother.
Des: You don’t have to if you don’t want to.
Ashley: There’s nothing wrong with my mother. My parents got divorced when I was five. At first, we were essentially… she kidnapped us while my dad was at work and took us away somewhere. Started us at school somewhere else. This is all a blur to me. I’m five years old at the time. But I think that the police had to come take us back. In the end, my dad won the custody battle.
Des: That will fuck things up.
Ashley: Yeah. My mother is also a drug addict. That will also fuck a lot of things up. I think that my mom is a good person in her heart. I think she’s a very good person who recognized that whenever it came to my brother and I, at least, that she wasn’t the best thing for us. From what I hear, the divorce battle ended with her admitting this and letting my dad have us. So I think she took us, realized her limitations, and then we ended up with my dad.
My dad is an alcoholic, so it was one or the other. But he loves us very much and that’s something that I never doubted, even when he was saying and doing bad things to me, and being the person he can be whenever he’s drunk. I know that he loves me more than anything. In those times, it’s hard to remember that, but it’s a good feeling when you remember it. It’s not easy to see with him sometimes, but I know it.
Des: What about your brother? You said your brother was really there when maybe he was too young. What about now?
Ashley: My brother’s very interesting. I think of all of the things that I’m talking about, it’s probably the hardest. We were very close growing up. I like to brag because I taught my little brother how to read. I was only eight or nine years old when I did that, so I brag about that because it feels good. Books and stories have always been really important to me, so I always liked to share the things that are important to me with him. He was always very attentive as a child, and I feel a bit like his mother.
My dad ended up marrying his high school sweetheart. My dad has been married five times.
Ashley: His third wife, after my mother, was his high school sweetheart. She was also very abusive, physically and, worst of all, psychologically. Mostly to my brother and I—her stepchildren. She was a lot better with her real children, though. I can’t say that it was much better, but it was better than how she treated my brother and I.
My brother grew up mostly with this woman, because I was five when my parents divorced. That would make my brother two, so he doesn’t really remember. I was five, and things weren’t perfect, but I remember these very sunny days and finding box turtles on the side of the dirt road—these memories that feel really good and warm to me. I remember these things, but my brother doesn’t.
So, he grew up knowing my stepmother, who was a total bitch. He even had some behavioral problems when he was four or so; banging his head on the walls until his nose bled, stuff like that. I didn’t know how to interpret it. There were things going on in that house that I didn’t know, or couldn’t even begin to understand as a child. He grew up pretty quiet. He’s the kind of person who could come home from school, lay on his bed, stare at the wall for five or six hours and do nothing, and then go to sleep. He could just do that, like… lost in thought? I don’t know. Not even bored, really.
I was very protective of him and I wanted to teach him things, and he wanted to learn from me. When I was in fifth grade or so, I had this aptitude for writing and people were realizing it. He sat me down and was like, “Teach me how to write.” He would sit there for hours and I would be like, “Look at this thing and tell me all about it using the five senses.” We would sit there and just describe things to each other.
Things that were important to me and I was good at, he wanted to be good at. I was an all-A student. He wanted to be an all-A student, but he wasn’t. That’s when the playing off of us [started]. My dad would do it, “Your sister made all As. You didn’t.” My brother is a very smart, inquisitive person, but it got lost in the mix.
I feel needlessly guilty about that because it’s not my fault. I wish that other people could have seen it as well as I did. I also wish that I could have been heard, you know? Not just by other people, but I wish that he could have heard it. But it got lost.
We were close up until I went to college. He was fifteen. It was like a week before I was supposed to leave for college. He started crying and he begged me not to go and leave him there. At this point, my dad is still an alcoholic and he doesn’t treat my brother very well. He didn’t treat me very well, either, but it just wasn’t the same.
My brother was a boxer for a while, from the time he was thirteen until the time he was fifteen or sixteen, I think. He was so good that, in tournaments when people got matched up with him, people forfeited because they were scared to fight him. He was a big fighter. It didn’t matter how bloody he got, he just kept going and going and going. He would get so angry, but he was just fists. All fists.
But when he lost, the ride home with dad was so bad. My dad would tear him down. Not just making him feel like a piece of shit, but literally telling him [that] whenever he lost. If you want to know why I’m such a perfectionist, it’s because I don’t want that shit to happen to me. I’m really hard on myself. I think my brother, the way he reacted to it was that he became more apathetic.
Whenever that would happen, I would be in the backseat. Dad would say something horrible, like literally the worst things that you can imagine a person saying to their child. I would be sitting in the backseat, whispering in my brother’s ear, like the angel on his shoulder, “This isn’t true. This is what’s true.” But it’s his dad, you know? That’s not supposed to be the way it is. I think that he listened to it, but he took it in the same quiet way that he always takes things, and just stared at the wall. I felt like I made a lot of efforts to take away the things that have happened to him and were said to him, but those bad things were just too much and too unimaginable, honestly. That stuff with Dad is just the surface. These things go so much deeper.
Up until I went away to college, we were very close. I do remember that day so well; that my brother was holding onto me and just begging me not to leave him. I had to, you know? My life wouldn’t be the way that it is now if I hadn’t. It’s still one of those things that I question, because if I hadn’t, I wonder if his life would’ve been better. My life would have sucked. But I wonder if I had stayed how things would be different now. I can’t say too much about it, but things are very different now. I think, emotionally and in every other way possible, my brother is in a lot of trouble, but there’s nothing that I can do.
I will say, though, for the record, that I love him more than anything. Because I still think a lot about death, I think a lot about the people that I would die for, and he’s at the top of that list. Then whenever I have that thought, I also think, “If you would die for him, why didn’t you stay behind for him?” So, I don’t know. It’s a conundrum.
Des: Anything to beat yourself up is where we’re going with that.
Ashley: It’s a conundrum.
Des: Right. So, you still think about death. Is suicide still an option for you?
Ashley: I don’t think so. The thing is that I don’t know what will happen in the future, because I know myself well enough to know that I’m going to think about it again. Again and again, probably. But I think I would have to have the sort of life I would have had in Arkansas to do it, and that’s not the life that I have now. I think the best thing I did for myself was get out of there and away from the people. Not even just the people. The people are good, but it’s their obsession with drama and making their lives worse and worse, and never any better. I don’t have that same obsession.
Des: I identify with that really well.
Ashley: I can’t have a conversation with my dad that doesn’t consist of me being quiet and him giving me the laundry list of everything bad that has happened since the last time I talked to him. These aren’t just bad things, these are horrible things that are going on. I cannot be a part of it. The reason I felt so out of place there, I think, is because I have a drive to always be better and to make my life better. I think that that’s something that they want in theory, but not something that is put into practice.
Every success that I have, I want my family to know… I guess I want to show them what possibility is. Every success that I have, I want them to know that it’s a possibility for them, too. I don’t know if they take it that way, because I get a lot of people very proud of me and then I get a lot of people who assume that I think that I’m better than them. Not the case. I do this for myself, but whenever I think about them in the mix of it, I think I do it for them, too. I want them to see that I’m doing it—that I graduated college and that they could do that, because I did it. And I come from where they come from.
Des: You like being first gen? It’s fun, right?
Ashley: It was scary! I didn’t know what I was doing. I didn’t know anything.
Des: Yeah. Same. Well, that’s why I’m in so much debt now!
Ashley: Luckily, I have none.
Des: Oh! Lovely, in fact. Here’s a research-y question: do you feel like your identity has changed, or like your attempt self-changed your identity as a human being?
Ashley: Hm. Well, I think yes, but I don’t go around thinking in my head all the time that I am a suicide attempt survivor, [like] that’s my identity. I’ve had so many, like… just spin the wheel on the diagnosis. I’ve had so many of those and I’ve adopted those identities, and then I’ve done away with them. There are things that make sense and things that don’t make sense. But as a person, I don’t know. Not identity as a label, but I think that it changed the kind of person that I am.
Des: That’s what I want.
Ashley: Yeah. I’m not the same person that went into the hospital. I’m not the same person that came out of the hospital, because I had to go through a lot of weird post-hospital things. Even after I got out of the hospital, I still self-harmed. I did a really bad one. I did a big one, and then I ended up—
Des: You did a big ‘un?
Ashley: I did a big ‘un. After the big ‘un, I stopped. That’s what we call it in Arkansas, is a “big ‘un.”
Des: A big ‘un.
Ashley: It definitely changed the way that I look at the world, the way that I see people, and the way that I see life. Thinking about death a lot—even whenever I’m not thinking about suicide but just death in general—thinking about it a lot changes the way I look at life. I’m definitely not the same person.
Des: Have you found any benefits to your suicide attempt? Have any benefits come out of it? This is one of the biggest things we’re trying to look at with the research that’s coming out of this project.
Ashley: Okay. Well, I think that there have been a lot of benefits. There have been a lot. Namely, it’s had to do with other people. It’s had to do with knowing what to do in situations that other people don’t know what to do, with suicide and mental illness in general. I have enormous anxiety. My anxiety contributes to a lot of my suicidal thoughts, because I just want to not be anxious and I can’t.
I have an anecdote. Do you want to hear my anecdote?
Ashley: My anecdote is: when I was, I believe a senior in college, my roommate and I went into a Taco Bell. There was a girl sitting in a booth, with all these people crowded around her. [She was] breathing fast, shaking, thinking she’s having a heart attack. She’s like my age. Not that it’s not possible, but I’m looking at it, and I’m like, “Alright.” I’m in the line with my roommate, I keep looking back, and I see people crowding around her. I’m like, “I think I know what’s happening. I think I can help.” I keep looking back and finally, my roommate is like, “If you think you can help, go over there.”
I walk over there—and this is not something I usually do, because I’m not a big people person so much. I like talking one-on-one, but there was a crowd of people over there. I went over there and I just suddenly felt very in control of the situation. I was like, “Do any of you know her?” No one knew her. So I was like, “Okay. Back away. Stand back there. Let her breathe, get away from her.”
I sat across from her and I took both of her hands in mine, and I asked her what her name was. She told me it was Hannah, which I remember. I was like, “Hannah, I’m Ashley.” I started describing her symptoms to her and she kept nodding and nodding. I was like, “Okay.” I wasn’t a medical expert, but I was like, “I believe that you’re having a panic attack.” Her friend was outside calling an ambulance, so if it wasn’t that, I felt okay to tell her this. I was like, “I believe that you’re having a panic attack, so I’m going to sit here and you’re going to breathe with me.” I sat and I breathed inwardly and outwardly deeply, and I spoke to her very softly.
Once I felt like I could feel her heart in her hands, I felt like her heart rate was down. I asked her, “Okay, what’s going on?” Something had happened and she was afraid she was going to lose her job. I just sat and I talked to her. Fifteen minutes go by and by the end of it, she was laughing with me. Her friend comes in, the ambulance had pulled up, and she’s laughing with me.
I felt very emotional afterward, because it was this moment of clarity like, “All of this makes so much sense right now.” All of the stuff that I’ve been through before makes so much sense. I’m sure she would have been fine if I hadn’t been there, but what were the odds that I walked in there at that exact moment and that I could do that? No one else knew what was going on, and they were crowding around her and doing all of the things I know that I would have hated. It was just one of those moments that I felt like it all made so much sense. I was grateful that I had had the experiences that I had had, because I helped her.
Des: That’s a perfect answer.
So, you don’t have to talk to me about the big ‘un, necessarily, but what made you stop [self-harming]? How did you stop? How did that work? I think that’s my last question, unless there’s more that you would like to discuss.
Ashley: Okay. I’m really good at tangents, so.
Des: It’s fine.
Ashley: First of all, the big ‘un. It was also over something very seemingly inconsequential. I’d left the cat food out. My cat got in it and strew it all over the place. The way [my dad] reacted was like, “I’ve told you so many times not to leave the cat food out, and you did it.” This is my therapy cat, by the way. Lives with my ex’s parents now, the one I told you about. My dad got him after I got out of the hospital and he was great. Had him for seven years. But he did like to put the food everywhere.
Des: As cats do.
Ashley: Yeah. So, something in my heads snaps. It’s the perfectionism thing where I think, “You did something bad, and you have to punish yourself for it.” Sometimes when I get punished, he’s like, “I’ve told you so many times.” That wasn’t enough for me. I felt so bad about it. I felt like I had to alleviate that bad feeling by making myself hurt somehow.
So, I self-harmed and ended up with nineteen staples in my leg. That was strange, because I actually didn’t mean to do so much. It was just a really sharp tool, and it was an accident. It was supposed to be small and I was very scared. When it wasn’t, I was terrified because I did it so quickly. Then I was like, “Oh god, no. It’s supposed to be something you can hide.” I remember limping to the bathroom and trying to clean it off, like, “You can do this.” Then I was like, “Nope. All your insides are spilling out. You can’t.” It was horrible.
I called my dad into the bedroom and I was very calm. I was like, “Dad, don’t freak out, but you know that thing that I used to do? I did it again, and it’s very bad. I need to go to a hospital right now.” He was like, “What do you mean?” I showed it to him. I swear he almost threw up. It sounds so horrible because of the subject matter we’re talking about. I would never think about it in hindsight. I don’t know why, but it’s funny to me.
So, I went to the hospital, got all stapled up. The staff were like, “What the hell? How do you do something like this on accident?” They were very mean to me, actually. Every time I’ve been in the hospital for suicide, self-harm, or whatever, I’ve always felt like they were really mean to me. Whenever I was really vulnerable and I just did not need that shit. They didn’t admit me into any sort of unit or anything, because I made it very clear that it wasn’t intentional that it was so bad.
After that—this is actually a very important part of the story—I was put on Lamictal. When you’re on Lamictal, there is a point eighty-seven percent chance that you start developing this disease called “Stevens-Johnson Syndrome.”
Des: You got it?
Ashley: I started to. I had horrible allergic reactions; my skin started separating. It was horrible, and I was basically in my bedroom, in a dark room for the entirety of the summer. [I wasn’t] able to breathe and I put whatever I could find, like lotions, on my skin, because I was in so much pain. I spent a summer in horrible agony.
I don’t blame my dad for this, but I told him that I thought I was getting sick from the medicine, because after a few days of taking it, there was this night that I could not breathe, and I couldn’t speak because I couldn’t breathe. All I could do was bang on the wall and my step-mother at the time came running in, and I just was like, “I couldn’t breathe. I was having a really bad allergic reaction.” I told my dad I thought it was from the medicine, but because of the severity of my wound and because of my history, he was like, “No, you’re taking it. You have to keep taking it.”
So, I kept taking it and I got worse and worse. We have this thing in my family that we don’t go to the hospital unless we have a missing limb, because we don’t have the money for hospital. My step-mother waited for my dad to go to bed one night. I’m laying on the sofa with a 103.8 fever, hallucinating, and I’d been sick for like a week at that point. She took me to the ER while he was asleep. My best friend went with her. I was not there. I was seeing stuff, and I was in a lot of pain. They gave me steroids and stuff like that. Once I was off the medication, the allergic reaction stopped, but my skin hurt like a motherfucker.
Des: That can kill you.
Ashley: I know it can kill you.
Des: The doctors never said anything?
Ashley: Well, see, the doctors in the ER didn’t say anything, but when I went to my psychiatrist, the person who had prescribed it to me, he was like, “You were developing Stevens-Johnson syndrome, but it was in such early stages.” The remainder of that was mostly self-care at home. I was in my bed a lot of the time, putting lotion on my skin and really in a lot of horrible pain. But I got better.
Des: Could have sued!
Ashley: Yeah, I guess, but I didn’t.
Des: They’re supposed to tell you that.
Ashley: I didn’t know anything about it.
Des: My doctor was crazy about it. Lamictal has been my miracle drug.
Ashley: My psychiatrist told me about it.
Des: But like, when he gave it to you?
Ashley: Yeah. When he gave it to me he told me about it, but he was like, “You’re probably not going to get it, so it’s probably not an issue.” But with my luck, which I do consider myself a person with not-great luck, it happened.
Ashley: So, yeah. I was just at home, recovering from that for a couple months.
Des: Oh, man. I’m sorry. That sucks.
Ashley: Yeah, it fucking sucked. But to answer your question, I remember I couldn’t really go in the sun because it hurt my skin. For a long time, I couldn’t go into the sun. The latter part of the summer, I started coming out more. It made me kind of weak at first, but I kind of worked myself up to it.
I ended up, toward the end of the summer, going to the beach with my family. Any time I have a big event like that, like self-harm or the suicide attempt and all of that, my family kind of walks on eggshells around me, because they just don’t understand what it is that’s setting me off. So, it was a good day at the beach. I had checked out a book from the library and I was reading it, and I felt the sun on my skin for the first time without it hurting so much. My left lung is irreparably damaged from trying to breathe and not being able to. But just breathing next to the water with the sun on my skin, reading a book, feeling hydrated and feeling good… I really remember that moment as a turning point after that hell of a summer, and after the big self-harm. It was just a moment of feeling happy that stuck with me. It was very simple. Nothing was happening with my family, like they kind of left the drama behind because they were walking on eggshells, so I didn’t have to put up with it. It did me good at that point.
Des: Awesome. I mean, not awesome, but awesome.
Des: Is there anything else you want to add or anything else you might want to say directly to someone who could be reading your story?
Ashley: I keep saying the past informs the present, which sticks in my head a lot for reasons, like what happened with that girl. Our memories and the things that we go through are our best resource for coping with what’s ahead. The past doesn’t define what the present is, is a lesson that I learned. Growing up where I grew up and in the kind of environment that I grew up in… I don’t know who all’s going to be reading this or whatever, but I understand for me, whenever I’m speaking, I am always striving to speak to people who felt like I felt. [People who] felt the absence of possibility. I think what I want people to know is that the possibility exists. You can’t always see it, but it’s there. Sometimes you have to do a lot for yourself in order to [see it].
If there’s a lesson to be learned from my life or what I’ve been through… I never thought that I would get out of Arkansas. I didn’t think college was a possibility. I knew that I was very smart, but I didn’t think that I would go to college because college costs money, and anything that costs money, I knew was off-limits to me. That’s how I felt growing up. Anything that costs money was just nothing. I cried at thirteen, because I thought I would never see New York and it was such a big dream of mine. All of the things that I thought that I wouldn’t do, I have already done most of them. Already. I’m twenty-three years old right now. The goals that I set out to do, which are so small, I feel, compared to the goals of a lot of people I know who grew up in really privileged backgrounds—I’ve accomplished those things. I have more goals now, and the goals that I have now, I know are possible.
Ashley’s story is sponsored by a grant from the hope & grace fund, a project of New Venture Fund in partnership with global women’s skincare brand, philosophy, inc. Thanks also to Andy Dinsmore for providing the transcription to Ashley’s interview, and to Sara Wilcox for editing.