Carrie Kargelis a suicide attempt survivor.
"I survived a suicide attempt."
Carrie Kargel was 39 years old when I interviewed her in Oklahoma City, OK, on April 6, 2016.
CONTENT WARNING: extended discussion of suicide methods
Usually, when I meet people and they ask [what I do], I lead with, “I’m on disability,” and then I tell them about all my weaknesses. I’m supposed to not do that anymore. I’m supposed to lead with my identity not being my disability, but that is how I see myself right now. I’m working on changing that.
Des: I want to hear the two versions of it. I want to hear what you dosay and what you shouldsay.
Carrie: What I usually say is that I’m on disability right now. I’ve been diagnosed with a few mental illnesses. A few years ago I had kind of a breakdown—constant depression, constant anxiety, constant wanting to die. I think my body got the message and it started dying. My digestive system shut down, my joints all started hurting—this long list of symptoms.
I applied for disability and miraculously got it right away, which almost never happens to anybody. I’ve been on disability for three years and focusing on healing. I’ve been to lots of doctors and had lots of testing, and they can’t find anything wrong with my body. I’ve been to gastroenterologists, I’ve been to joint specialists, I’ve been to all sorts of different doctors. They’ve done X-Rays and EKGs. I have chest pains, and they all say, “You’re perfectly healthy. It must be this stress that you’re constantly clenched up in. Your body knows you want to die, so it’s going along with it.”
I’ve been spending the last three years just working on getting healthy and changing my mind frame so my body catches up and gets the picture that we’re going to live. We’re going to be okay. My physical health is getting, compared to three years ago, much better. I’m still not quite healthy enough to get off disability yet.
That’s what I usually tell people, right away when I meet them. I don’t make friends very easily that way. I’m told often by those who can appreciate it that my story is inspiring. They’re glad that I share so openly. That helps them feel less alone.
I feel like my story has been going for decades and I’m still struggling. At times, that used to feel hopeless to me, and now it doesn’t. It’s just starting to change and that feels awesome. How many people can say they’ve struggled for decades and are still here to say, “I’m here. I can do this. I can fight this fight?” I’m just now trying to reframe that because it used to be that I’d say, “I’ve been struggling for decades. It’s never going to end. I can’t do this, I just can’t.”
Des: What answer should you be giving people?
Carrie: Who I am is not my disability. I’m a person who loves. I love the arts, I love music, I love playing music, I love singing, I love listening to music, I love going to music, I love creating art projects, I love going to see art projects, I love being in nature.
My biggest characteristic is that I love helping people. I really get so much out of helping people. I find ways to give. I find jobs where I’m giving. I’m either working with people with disabilities or I’m taking care of children. I’m working with some sort of social services or I’m volunteering. I’m doing tornado relief or I’m working at Pride. I’m always, as often as I can, volunteering.
Des: Where are you originally from?
Carrie: I was born in North Dakota. When I was just a couple of months old, my dad was stationed in Spain. As soon as I was old enough to travel, we moved to Spain. I spent my first four years in Spain, the next three years at a naval base in Maine, and then, at seven years old, we moved to Arizona, so I consider that home. That’s where I grew up.
At eighteen, I left Arizona. I haven’t really had a strong home base since then. I’ve gone back to Arizona a few times, but I just bounced around the United States from eighteen until thirty-nine.
Des: Your story—start wherever you want to start. Whatever’s most comfortable for you. It doesn’t have to be linear.
Carrie: I always say, “If I had a dollar for every time someone told me I should write a book, I would be rich.” I don’t know how to write a book because I don’t know how to condense my story into a readable, cohesive form. I mean, forty years of life, lessons, and experiences… how do you?
When I was seven years old, I went to a physical at a doctor’s appointment. They found evidence that I had been molested. I had no memory of it. I went through intense counseling where, at seven years old, they were asking me questions where I was like, “What are you talking to me about this stuff for? I’m seven. I don’t understand.” It was pretty traumatizing for me because I didn’t have any memory [of it].
That was in the ‘80s. The police I dealt with didn’t have great training in how to handle cases. It was not a healthy situation. I was terrified. They were asking me questions that were scary. They were trying to put words in my mouth. They asked, “Was it this person? Did it happen here?”
I finally just confessed and said, “Yes.” They fed me a story and I agreed to it. Thankfully, it turned out there was evidence that it hadn’t been the person who was implicated.
To this day, I’ve never had a memory, but I continue, every now and then, to have nightmares. I think I’ve cried about it twice in my life. Those two times were pretty scary and intense, where it hit me all of a sudden that somebody hurt me when I was seven years old. It was just overwhelming.
My home environment was not especially stable. I’m trying to reframe that, too. I only see the negative, but if I look back, there’s a lot of positive in my growing up years. I had a lot of people who did love me. I had a lot of my physical needs met. I had a lot of really fun experiences. My childhood wasn’t absolutely terrible. I’m trying to think about that first now when I remember my childhood. It used to be that all I remembered were the fights and the screaming, the yelling and the put downs, the pain and the physical punishments, and not feeling safe and secure in the world ever. Feeling scared a lot. Looking at strangers and wondering, “Why aren’t you saving me? Save me from this horrible experience.”
At a very young age, I decided I was going to grow up and help other little kids because being a little kid sucked and it was hard. I knew that little kids needed help.
I was in an after-school program once that told us to do a collage. They gave us magazines. Stereotypically, little boys were putting sports, and little girls were doing flowers, houses, and weddings. I found an article on child abuse. I read it and put together a collage about child abuse. Even then, I was like, “Is nobody getting it?” Nobody at the after-school program stopped and said, “Huh, what’s going on with this person?” Nothing was ever caught at a really young age and I’m not entirely sure why. Again, I didn’t really feel safe or protected or understood.
At fourteen, my parents divorced. I was thrilled because it felt like the constant fighting, anxiety, and anger might end. I was so excited. But, of course, divorce isn’t easy, and it ended up being more traumatizing than I expected. My dad went in to a deep depression. I lived with him because I felt obligated to try and take care of him.
I went into my first obvious depression at fourteen. It seems almost laughable now. I feel like there are jokes that only people with mental illness laugh at. In psych wards, I’ve laughed about things nobody else would laugh about. I took the back of an earring and I scratched my arm. It didn’t even break the skin. That’s hilarious, but it’s not really that funny. I was fourteen. I was trying to kill myself with an earring, but it didn’t work. I was frustrated, I left the room, and nobody knew. Nobody had any clue that anything was wrong. I didn’t tell anybody.
I felt like I didn’t really have my place in the world, so when I met my friends in high school, I finally found the alternative crowd. They accepted differences, and I didn’t feel like I had to fit into anything. I tried fitting in with the hippies, I tried fitting in with the stoners, I tried the gothic crowd. I went in and out of a lot of different things, but I realized I was still trying to fit into this alternative box that would define me. It took probably until my senior year to figure out that I didn’t need to fit into a box. I could dress gothic one day if I wanted to, I could be a hippie one day if I wanted to, I could dress in really preppy clothes one day if I wanted to, and nobody had the right to tell me that I was being fake. I was just me, and I didn’t have to fit into a box. At seventeen, I feel like I finally got that. I guess that’s the first part of my timeline.
There’s this conversation in psychiatry about nature versus nurture—how much of who we are is defined by what’s around us, and how much is defined by what we were born with. In my counseling with my psychiatrists and doctors, we’ve realized that we just don’t know. I had a lot of traumas growing up and I’ve had traumas that I haven’t talked about yet. Is that why I struggle the way I do, or was I born with it? We don’t know. There are signs and symptoms of these struggles in my teenage and younger years.
One of the diagnoses I have is obsessive-compulsive personality disorder (OCPD)—it’s different from OCD. I don’t obsess about whether I locked the door. I don’t have rituals where I have to step five times, go back four times, and then forward three times. I obsess in my head about things. I’ll get stuck on a phrase sometimes while I’m walking. Sometimes it’s a good one. I’ll think like, “I’m okay, I’m okay, I’m okay, I’m okay.” Other times it will be a bad one like, “This sucks, this sucks, this sucks, this sucks,” and I can’t get that word to stop in my head. Every now and then it will be something that has to do with numbers, but it’s all in my head. It’s not usually in my actions.
One of my biggest obsessions has been spirituality. I’m really obsessed with this need to know the truth. This need to know what is absolutely right and true, and what is absolutely wrong and not true. That’s been from as a little, little girl. I desperately wanted to know what was spiritually true.
We’d go to church and I’d try to figure it out. Growing up, I had family members who were Mormon, a baby sitter who was one of Jehovah’s Witnesses, another who was Seventh Day Adventist, my mom herself is Methodist, a lot of my family was Catholic. I tried so desperately to figure out what the truth was, but just couldn’t.
I started feeling “crazy” for the first time at seventeen. I had my first (what felt like) total mental breakdown, right about the time I figured out that I didn’t have to fit into a box. That was liberating and I was excited, but then I realized that I didn’t know what truth was. I still had that one box that I needed to fit in. I couldn’t live without having that part figured out. I just had a complete breakdown and I thought, at seventeen, “I’m going to end up in a psych ward. I’ll probably spend the rest of my life there because people don’t know how crazy I am. Nobody will ever understand.”
Now, at almost forty, I realize that almost everyone I meet has, at some point in their life, thought, “I’m so crazy, no one realizes how crazy I am, no one will ever understand.” I was so not alone at all, but I felt that way.
I finally made a decision that I was going to be an ultra-conservative Christian. I was going to be a mainstream Christian. I was going to go to church and devote myself to Jesus.
I got out of a lot of my alternative crowds because they were not Christian. My friends did drugs. They weren’t bad people, they just weren’t conservative Christians.
I moved to Seattle to start my life over. It’s actually a long story, what happened in Seattle my first few years there. Even though I’d figured out that I wanted to be this really conservative Christian and I thought I’d figured out what my box was, I was confused about what that meant and how to be a conservative Christian. I went from church to church to church, where people tried to mold me into their specific forms of conservative Christianity.
After about a year I started having, on a regular basis, really extreme panic attacks and anxiety attacks. One night, I felt like I was experiencing Hell on earth. I was laying in my bed thinking, “This is it. This is what Hell feels like. It’s eternity, and I’m experiencing it right now.” It was terrifying.
I felt like I had to do every tiny little thing right to be pleasing in God’s eyes. If I didn’t wear the right shirt on the right day, then the right person wouldn’t comment, and I wouldn’t notice if I didn’t turn right or left. If I made any small misstep, I might not be in God’s will, and I might go to Hell. It was killing me.
About that time, I met a group that turned out to be a cult. I thought they were my answer to what then had only been a few years of intense struggle. I traveled with this cult for three years, initially thinking I had found the answer to all my problems, but it ended up making things much, much worse. Instead of having to figure out what to wear on what day, when to turn left, when to turn right, and how to live, they controlled every detail: how much toilet paper I used, how long my showers were, what I ate, what words I was allowed to say, what music I was allowed to listen to, who I was allowed to talk to, what colors I was allowed to wear, what opinions I was allowed to have. I was supposed to forget my old life and my old self one hundred percent and become the person they wanted me to be—take a new name, a new life, and die to the first nineteen years of my life, almost literally.
After three years, I was constantly questioning everything they told me. I was considered rebellious. I was strongly questioning whether I should be in there, but I didn’t dare leave. I had already been so scared that I was going to Hell before them. After meeting them, it was even stronger; if I left, I would go to Hell.
Right around that time, I went to San Francisco with the cult. I went to the beach one day to pray. I started looking around and there were all these gay people, happily living their lives. I thought, “You guys are supposedly living in sin. You should be miserable. Instead, here I am sitting on the beach miserable, and you’re happy.” Something started spinning at that point, even more strongly, about whether I had made the right choices and was believing the right things.
Then I fell in love with one of the sisters in the cult. Again, it’s a long story of traumatic experiences in the cult. I tried to deal with that, repent, get over it, and confess. It just wouldn’t go away. Then she said that she’d fallen in love with me, as well. We decided to leave the cult together, but our plans were found out. We were told we were going to go to Hell. She was so scared that she believed it and decided to stay.
I was kicked out of the cult. It was brutal. I had fallen in love with this woman. I didn’t want to leave the cult if I knew she was staying, but they they told her that I was of the devil. She had to let me go because I was Satan, and I was going to go to Hell. They sent me home to my parents.
My parents were super excited to see me after three years of being gone. I was just a mess. I’ve been through a lot in my life, but that was the worst. I really believed I was going to Hell. I had nobody or nothing in the world. I didn’t know what to believe. It was just this intense oppressive darkness. I wasn’t musical at the time. I just felt like I had to live with this darkness.
I don’t know how to make the story short. My girlfriend was kicked out—well, she left. She ran away. We traveled together, but we couldn’t have a healthy, happy relationship because we were both so traumatized from the cult. We weren’t good for each other, even though we were deeply in love.
We found a cult recovery center that did two weeks of really intensive psychiatric counseling, taught us what cults are, how it works, how to recover. They suggested then that I go on medications, but I said, “No, God will heal me. I don’t need medication.” They suggested that my girlfriend and I break up. We eventually did.
I traveled and I started trying to experience my new out of the closet life. I was sleeping around, I was drinking a lot, I was doing drugs. I was trying to find some peace separate from this conservative Christian life that I had led. I didn’t find it. I ended up thinking it was because I was living in sin.
I went back to Seattle. I called a crisis line and I said, “I’m scared. I don’t know what to do because I think I’m going to be suicidal. Finally, after years of struggling, for the first time, I’m seriously thinking about suicide.”
They said, “Well, are you planning to kill yourself tonight?”
I said, “No. I’m just really scared. I’m almost at that point.”
They said, “We can’t help you unless you’re in crisis. It sounds like you’re not in crisis right now, so why don’t you find a counselor and they can help you through that?” It’s ridiculous. I couldn’t find any help.
I just continued to drink, do drugs, and sleep around. A bunch of people from the cult left and decided to start a new church that would be like the cult, but healthy. I met up with them and thought, again, “This will be it. A way to be a healthy Christian.” That just didn’t work out. It’s a long story, yet again. It was really unhealthy.
I moved to North Dakota to be with my dad. My relationship with him had been strained since I was little. He had not been a super healthy person when I was growing up. As an adult, we decided to make amends. He’s now one of my best friends. I absolutely love him. I’m so glad I went to North Dakota to make amends and figure out how to be close to him.
But North Dakota was a really oppressive, narrow-minded place. I heard people saying things like—when gay marriage was briefly legalized in California, the people in North Dakota were like, “Those monsters. What right do they think they have to live in their sin?” I was like, “Oh my gosh. Where am I? What am I doing?”
I became actually suicidal for the first time. A counselor convinced me to try medication. Anybody who’s tried medication probably knows the process of figuring out what works for you—how much to take, what mixture to take—can be a long and difficult process.
When I first took meds, it did not work for me. It was terrible. It sucked. I went from hating life and wanting to make really bad choices, to hating life and lying in bed without the energy to make any choices. I just became really lethargic and numb. It wasn’t good, so I left. I had to get out of North Dakota.
I went back to Arizona. I found AA. I got sober for three years. I feel like AA saved my life by working through the twelve steps and having a semi-spiritual program where I could pick my own spiritual power, work through my hurts, and make amends. It was just the most healing, most wonderful thing for me. It was really wonderful.
I went to massage school. I actually graduated. I felt like I had accomplished something for the first time in my life. I finished a college program, I graduated, I started a career. I felt like I was finally doing really well.
I met this woman, a beautiful lesbian Christian, who was amazing. I’ve never been more in love with anybody in my life than I was with her. She turned out to be a really unhealthy person. I still love her to this day, but she was not good for me. It got really abusive. She rammed her truck into my car multiple times. She threatened to hit me. Never hit me, but her words cut more. I felt like I would rather have been punched, really, than the words from her.
We tried to break up and got back together, tried to break up and got back together. We were both scared that we were living in sin. One of us would say, “I love you. God approves of this.” Then the other would say, “No, it’s a sin. We need to break up.” I couldn’t handle it anymore. I actually tried to kill myself for the first time. I was in my twenties. I slit my wrist. Some people say it was a miracle—it was God. Psychiatrists say it wasn’t a miracle, it was my subconscious kicking in.
I don’t know how much we’re supposed to go into detail about suicide attempts. Some people don’t want to hear the details.
Des: Whatever you want to do.
Carrie: I had a really sharp object at my wrist. I felt like I was putting all my weight on it. Psychiatrists say that was my subconscious will to live, and I was thinking that I was putting all my weight on it, but really I was not—I was just in such a mental craze that I didn’t know what I was doing anymore. I thought I wanted to die, but I didn’t. I was so pissed that I couldn’t kill myself, because I really thought I wanted to die. I did want to die.
I called some counselors and some cult experts and said, “This is a desperate emergency. I am literally bleeding, wrist bandaged, want to die. I will find a way to die. My next idea is to go jump in front of a train. My first attempt failed, so I’m giving one more shout out for help. Maybe you can help me.”
They said, “We don’t really do free counseling. If you can pay per hour, we can do some phone counseling.”
I said, “No, I can’t pay.” I hung up.
They called the police. The police called me. The police said, “Why don’t you just meet up with us and we’ll take a look at that wrist?”
I said, “I’m not stupid. You’re not just going to look at my wrist. You’re going to take me in, so… no, I’m not meeting up with you.”
They called my family. My family called me. Everything was just crazy. I was driving around in my car using my cell phone so nobody could figure out where I was. I was still determined to find a way to die.
My brother called. I said, “I guess you’re calling because you heard what happened.”
He said “No, what do you mean? What happened?”
I was like, “You don’t know?”
My brother’s amazing. He saved my life that day. He had no idea what was going on. I expected him to freak out like everybody else was freaking out, and he said, “Man, that sucks.” He said, “It sounds like things just got really bad there, you couldn’t handle it, and you felt like you had to get away from everything. It was too much. Why don’t you just get away? Why don’t you just get in your car, drive to San Francisco, and come see me? We’ll go sit at the beach and look at the sunset. Run away. Leave it. Leave all of it. Just drive.”
I was like, “Oh my gosh. Why didn’t I think of that? I don’t have to kill myself. I can still run away. I can run away from everything. I don’t have to do this. I don’t have to do this job and be in this house with these people.”
And I did. I got in the car and drove to San Francisco. We met at the beach, watched the sunset, and he promised not to turn me in. It gave me just enough time to clear my head, so I was willing to turn myself in.
It was my first hospitalization. They helped me find the right cocktail of medications that didn’t mess me up. I thought I was doing better. Of course, it didn’t get better right away. It was this process, and I ended up being hospitalized many more times within that first couple of years. I was putting one foot in front of the other and I was making progress.
I ended up in a domestic violence shelter to recover from the past abuse. I didn’t know what else to do. The domestic violence shelter helped me a lot in figuring out what abuse is like and how to deal with it.
Then I met this other Christian woman who was determined that we were going to be together. God had put us both through everything He had so that we could be together. We could tell the world that it was okay to be Christian and gay, and it was going to be wonderful.
We were together for a year, but then she decided that God actually wanted her to be straight, she was supposed to marry a man, and my mental illness was really just too much for her, anyway. She couldn’t handle my constant depression and confusion, so she broke up with me.
I guess we’re caught up now. She broke up with me, my body had had enough of this and just started shutting down. I got really, really sick. I got suicidal. There was another hospitalization. I applied for disability. They accepted. I came to live with my parents here in Oklahoma City because I just didn’t know how to live any more. I just didn’t know what to do.
I got counseling and they suggested dialectical behavioral therapy. I was like, “You guys just don’t understand, nothing is going to work. Nothing. I’ve been going through this for decades now, but I will try it. I’ll go to your DBT studio, your stupid whatever, and you’ll see that it won’t work.” I really didn’t believe it wouldn’t work. A year later, I was like, “Oh, my gosh. This is working. This is actually working.”
Dialectical behavioral therapy didn’t solve all my problems, but it helped me to realize that there are two extremes. You don’t have to live in either extreme. We can live in the middle. That’s the dialectic. We think we have to be one hundred percent ready to live or one hundred percent ready to die. I found that I could live in the middle. It would be okay. I could get through each day not really liking that I was alive, but being alive. There was this middle ground—being super confident, super happy, super liberal, and free some days, then super conservative, super scared, and super weak. I could be both. I could need the answers and not have the answers at the same time.
Even though that doesn’t answer all my problems, it’s just helped me find a way to live. Because of that, I have really, really great days. I have really difficult days, but I get through it.
A couple of months ago, I felt like I had hit bottom again. It just wasn’t worth it. I thought, “Why do I have to live this stupid life if I’m tired of this? This keeps happening. I’m ready to be done.” Then I remembered, “Oh, wait. I’ve felt this way before, and you know what? Even though it feels like it will never end, I’m tired of it, and I can’t get through it… I can.”
There’s this meme on Facebook that says: “My record for getting through hard days so far is one hundred percent.” That’s pretty good, and it’s true. My record for getting through hard days so far is one hundred percent.
So, I kind of took a deep breath and experienced what it was like to be hopeless for a little bit. That sucked. It lasted a couple of days. Then, somehow, I made it through. The next week, I was having fun and doing things. I was living. I was back on the path again.
Lots and lots of really good things have come from the struggle for me. One of the best things that has come from it is that I like to help people. I’ve almost gotten to a place now where, when it feels like it’s worse than it’s ever been and it couldn’t get any worse, I think, “This is some more experience that I can use to help people. This is awesome.”
If you’ve suffered a little bit, you can help people who’ve suffered a little bit, because you understand. If you’ve suffered a lot, then you can help people who’ve suffered a lot. I have been at the bottom—the worst of the worst. When I meet somebody else who is there and they’re like, “You don’t understand,” I’m like, “Oh, I do.” I start telling them my story and they’re like, “Oh, you really do.” It turns out to be a pretty good feeling.
I mean, it sucks. I wouldn’t wish my experience on anybody, but some really good things have come from it. I have some insights into life that I never would have had. I have compassion for people. I can’t judge other people for being confused, or for not knowing, or for making bad choices. I look at people and think, “I haven’t made the same mistakes you have, I haven’t done the things you have, but I know what it’s like to feel judged. I know what it’s like to feel stuck, I know what it’s like to make bad choices, and I love you. I love you right where you are—your ugliness.
That’s a really good feeling to be able to have that. I mean, I’m human and I catch myself judging people, but I catch it. I’m like, “You’re doing that judging thing.” I like that. I like having the ability to catch it. I like being able to relate to people. I like helping.
I’m not one hundred percent through it. I still have difficult days. I feel like lots of people have tried to help me. One of the things that’s hurt the worst is when people tried to fix me or tell me, “This is what’s going to be best for you. You have to do this. You have to fix it in this way the way I did it. The way it worked for me, I know it will work for you.”
That has never worked for me. People give advice and sometimes their advice is right on, sometimes I take it and sometimes I don’t. Sometimes the advice isn’t going to work for me. I do the best when I’m given the freedom to try to figure it out. I’ve made some really bad choices, but the people who’ve said, “I love you—good choices, bad choices, good days, bad days.” and given me some freedom to learn? That’s what has helped me get through.
I remember there was this story I was going to tell. I really didn’t believe it was worth it because I’d been going through this for so long. I was tired of it, and people around me were tired of it. I thought, “I’m hurting people around me. I’m on disability. I can’t take care of myself. I’m crying. I’m hurting myself. All these problems, all these issues. People really would be better off if I was gone. I could keep going, I could, but it’s not fair to people around me if I kept going. It would be better for them if I just gave up because I wouldn’t have to put them through this.”
After living with my mom for a little while, one day she just kind of grabbed me by the shoulders, looked me in the eye, and said, “Baby girl, I would rather go through this with you for the rest of your life than have you gone. Why don’t you believe me?”
I just looked her in the eyes and I finally got it. She meant it. She would rather me be around having bad days. She would rather love me through the bad days for the rest of my life than have me gone. I knew she meant it and that just hit me like a ton of bricks.
I’ve talked to some parents who’ve had children who killed themselves. They lost their kids and said, “You don’t understand. I wish that I still had the privilege of walking through the dark days with them. I wish I did. I know it was rough on them. I know it was rough on me. It wasn’t easy, but I would give anything to have the bad days back.” I looked in their eyes and I knew they meant it. They really didn’t feel like they would be better off without their child, without their friend, without their father.
I recently got the semicolon on my wrist next to my scar. It’s from Project Semicolon, where there could have been a period and an ending, but with a semicolon, you pause and then continue. My sister got the same tattoo. She said, “Next time that you’re feeling at your end, I want you to look at it and remember that I’m with you. I have the same tattoo. I would rather walk through this with you than have you end. Just pause and we’ll keep going.”
Last time I felt like I was at my end, I looked at it. I was like, “Alright, I’ve planned how I’m going to do this,” then I saw my wrist and thought, “Damn it, my sister. I have to stay alive for her, or my nephews, or for whatever.”
But what works one day, when I’m at my end, doesn’t work the next time. I like that DBT, for me, gives me a piece of paper that has a list of things to try. Like, think about your future, think about your past, remember this too shall pass. Make amends or help somebody or go for a jog. I have this long list of options. Sometimes thinking of my little baby nephew, like, “Oh, I can’t leave him without an auntie,” and that’s it, that’s all I need to get through. Sometimes I think of him, like, “Oh, no. He’d be better off without me,” and I need to try one of the other options because this one’s not working for me.
One of the skills is to just check yourself in. Go to a hospital. Or get in your car, drive to San Francisco. Listen to some music or cry or find a punching bag. I like that I have my list. It gets me through.
I’ve noticed this to be true about a lot of people. We all have different strengths and weaknesses. We just all do. The people who think that they’re the worst people on earth, they have strengths. The people who think they’re not intelligent have insight into parts of life that the geniuses of the world don’t. We just all have strengths and weaknesses. We might not know what they are, but we do. I’ve found that a lot of the people I talk to who are really depressed are really intelligent, smart people—we think and think and overthink, and it drives us batty.
One of the things that I’ve learned about mental illness and constant anxiety and depression is the way it can actually shrink parts of our brains. Though we’re really intelligent, we end up feeling really dumb at times. We can’t remember things, we wonder what’s wrong, like, “Why do I feel stupid?” I’ve even been told at times, “You’re so stupid, you’re a bimbo, you’re dumb, you can’t learn.”
I believed it for a while, but I’ve realized now that I’m not stupid. I’m not. I’m smart. I can’t use my brain the way I want sometimes because I have these obstacles that get in the way. My feelings, my anxiety, and my emotions take over. It’s fight-or-flight. When you’re in fight-or-flight, your higher level thinking shuts down because it’s just, “Survive, survive, survive.” So, I’ve been through a chunk of my life without my higher level of thinking because I’ve been in fight-or-flight—have to survive, have to do this.
What made me think of that was DBT. I want to study DBT more. I’d like to learn more about it, and Marsha Linehan, but I feel like sometimes I fill my brain with so much information. I’ve studied mental illness, I’ve studied the science behind it. I’ve studied this, I’ve studied that. It’s kind of like an outlet—if you plug too many things into it all at once, it short circuits, and then I can’t do anything.
I feel like my brain sort of short circuits at times. I’ve studied religion so much trying to figure out the answers to spirituality that my brain short circuits. I start to think about spirituality now and my brain goes, “I don’t know, I got nothing. I can’t do it.”
Eventually, I would like to learn more about DBT. Lately I’ve been having other things that have been taking up my brain space, but it’s pretty fascinating.
Des: It is. It works for a lot of people who are suicidal. I’ve never tried it, mostly from fear of working in groups, which is ridiculous, but…
Carrie: I’ve actually quit doing the groups. The advice is that I get back into the groups, but I just haven’t done it. I’ve been getting back into DBT using my list and my skills, on my own and with my therapist for a while now, because I did have some pretty bad experiences using groups. It’s made me wary to go back. It’s not the groups that are bad, I just had some bad experiences.
It’s like life. I’ve been hurt again and again to the point where I don’t like to leave my house, have friends, or have a relationship sometimes, but it’s not that life always hurts or relationships always hurt, I’ve just had some bad experiences. I can have good experiences.
Des: Is suicide still an option for you?
Carrie: I tell myself that it is, but mostly…
Another part of the story I didn’t mention—it’s different for everybody. AA is absolutely what some people need to stick with their entire lives. They’re alcoholics. If they have a drink, it will not be pretty.
After being in AA for three years, my sponsor said, “I don’t think you’re really an alcoholic. I think that you use alcohol sometimes. I think that you use drugs. I think that you use sex. I think that you use things sometimes to numb yourself. I don’t think you’re a true alcoholic.” I’m now at a place where I can drink in moderation and it doesn’t affect me at all. I don’t have a desire to use alcohol in a negative way. People in my life know to watch me, not because I’m an alcoholic, but because I can be extreme in my choices, and alcohol could be one of them.
Anyway, in AA they suggested not saying, “I can never have a drink.” I can have a drink tomorrow if I want one. I can. I can drink anytime I want. I might not like the consequences. It might not be good, it might not be pretty, but I can. I can do what I want.
I can choose suicide. I’m allowed to. It’s an option. Should I? Will it really be the answer? Will it get me where I want? No, I don’t think it will. I don’t think it will solve my problems the way I expect it to, that it’ll be actually good for the people around me the way I think it will be. I don’t think it’s the smartest choice. I don’t think it’s the healthiest choice. But it’s still an option. It’s out there. I’m glad that it’s not one that I feel inclined to use right now. I haven’t for a few years. There are still days when I’m like, “Damn, why do I have to live this stupid life? I could just kill myself.” Then I’m like “Eh, no. I have different options now. I can’t guarantee that I will never again be suicidal, but there aren’t many guarantees in life about anything, so I’m okay with that right now.”
I am thinking of things now—things that helped me. Of course, music and nature. Those can be things on my list. Sometimes I need to listen to happy music, sometimes I need to listen to angry music. Sometimes I need to watch a comedy to make me laugh, sometimes I need to watch a movie about suicide that just hits me in my core and makes me cry. It can be different.
There are three movies that stand out to me that made huge impacts in my life. Huge. I think I have different light bulb experiences where I think, “That’s it. I’ll never be suicidal again because now I know…” It’s not a guarantee. I do still have bad days after that. But I’ve had these lightbulb moments after watching three movies.
One was Patch Adams. Patch Adams starts off being suicidal and then, what he does with his life and how he deals with it. Man, that gave me a lot of hope. A lot of hope after watching that movie. I felt like I could keep going for an indefinite period of time.
A Beautiful Mind really made a huge impact on me. To this day, I think of it on a pretty regular basis. I think about that movie and his story. It’s a true story about a guy with schizophrenia. He’s not cured of it at the end of the movie, but he finds a way to live with it. Like, at the end of the movie he gets the attention of a stranger and says, “Excuse me, is the person in front of me real?”
They say, “Yes,” and he laughs.
Man, he just found a way to live with his mental illness. He didn’t even overcome it. He just lives with it and he laughs and he’s found love. Somebody could love a person like him. Somebody could love me. Somebody could love Patch Adams. I’m lovable. I can find love. I don’t have to be mental illness-free to find love. That gave me a lot of hope that I could live with this and it would be okay—in fact, I could laugh at my mental illness at times, and it would be okay.
The other one is the Lord of the Rings trilogy. I got a lot out of it, but the biggest thing was that, over and over again in this movie, it’s impossible situations. There is clearly no way out. It is done, this is the end, everybody’s given up hope… and then it continues. It continues and it continues.
It’s so interesting. It starts off where Frodo’s great. He’s good, and it’s just his enemies against him. After a while, it seems like even nature can be against him, then after a while even his friends are against him. Towards the end of the story, his own brain is against him.
Samwise says, “Why are you still doing this?”
Frodo’s like, “I don’t know, I just have to keep going. I have to do this. I don’t know why me. Why me? But I have this purpose, this mission to get this ring to Mordor. I feel like this burden is too heavy. I’m carrying this ring. It’s too much. Not only are the bad guys against me, but sometimes it feels like nature is against me, or my friends, or my brain… but I just keep putting one foot in front of the other.”
The moral of the story of Lord of the Rings is that life isn’t easy, but it’s full and beautiful, difficult and worthwhile. I think that gives me a lot to go on.
Des: I’m curious about the cult, mainly because I’m curious whether you felt like other people around you were also feeling suicidal. I don’t know the first thing about cult culture.
Carrie: That actually reminds me of something else I was going to say: we’re not that different.
AA is another place that helped me realize this. I struggled with drinking. I went to these meetings and I met so many other people who struggled with drinking. We were all so different. There were gang members, there were bikers, there were hippies, there were teachers, there were rich people, there were poor people, young people, old people, conservative Christians, atheists—all of us.
When we got in those rooms and started talking, there was this common connection. That was great for fighting alcoholism, but I’ve realized that it’s true in the world. My personal story is that I’ve had a lifetime of trauma and, yes, a lifetime of trauma can sometimes lead to suicidal feelings, but I’ve met people who don’t have lives of trauma and feel suicidal—then they feel guilty because they have no reason to be suicidal. They haven’t lived through trauma. They look at me and they’re like, “At least you have a reason.”
Des: I have a lot of people who come to me and they say, “I had a totally normal childhood. I don’t know if my story is what you want.” Yes, it is.
Carrie: Yeah. We’re all in it. We’re all in this life boat. I felt that way with stereotypes. In the gay community there are stereotypes, and some people fit them and some people don’t. In the conservative Christian circle, some people fit them and some people don’t. But this human experience, we all have something in common. It’s this life we’re living. There are struggles. Good times and difficult times. Our highs and lows might look different—mine are more extreme than some people’s, they might happen on a more regular basis.
My counselor is working with me right now to say that I’m not that different. I’m still human. I’m still worthy. I still have value. I have as much value as anybody else. I have trouble with the word “worth” because that feels like I deserve it, like I’ve earned it. I don’t feel like I deserve anything good because I haven’t done anything any extra, more special than anybody else. I don’t deserve good things any more than anybody else deserves good things, but I have value. Everybody has value. [It’s] an inalienable human right whether you’ve had hard times or not had hard times.
The cult experience is also one of those things that’s different for absolutely everybody. Some people I know have left, but still won’t call the group a cult. They don’t believe it was a cult. Their experience was so different than mine. Some people leave and are able to maintain a strong sense of faith. Some people leave, hate religion, and become absolute atheists or agnostic. Everybody’s different. Some people recover immediately, some people struggle with it a little bit more. It affected me really intensely and I still struggle with it.
Definitely other people in the cult were suicidal, though. For sure. I have talked to others who’ve had that same experience. The lady who I fell in love with struggled with some suicidal feelings, and then her father actually killed himself.
One thing I’ve learned is that when someone close to you kills themselves, it can make it easier for you to feel that way. That’s one of those skills on my list where I look at reasons to stay alive. We’re all responsible for ourselves, but we do affect each other, so I can remind myself [of that] sometimes when I’m feeling like I want to end my life. I’m not responsible for somebody else making that choice, but I do want to acknowledge that if I make this choice, it could affect people around me and make it easier for them to be able to do that. If I don’t have hope for myself, I do want to have hope for them.
Des: I like that. Okay, last question. It sounds like you’re probably still faithful?
Carrie: Yeah… I said, “Yes,” but what’s not recorded is that I shook my hand like, “Eh.”
In the last year, this is new… you know, I’m almost forty. I’ve spent my whole life saying, “I’m Christian, I’m Christian, I’m Christian. I’m an absolute Christian, I have to be Christian, I want to be Christian. I’m determined to find a way to be Christian.” While that’s still true—that I feel determined to find a way—I haven’t found a way. I’m just finally admitting to myself I haven’t found a way to do this. I feel inclined to do it, I’m intellectually persuaded that it’s a marked decision, and I would like to, but the truth is I’m just filled with a lot of doubts, a lot of hurts, and a lot of confusion.
I’m agnostic. I call myself an agnostic Christian or a Christian agnostic, at this point. I’ve given myself the freedom to not have to fit into a box. I strongly identify with the Christian faith, but I desperately still need answers. It affects me every single day of my life. I try to do things, but I don’t know what to believe. Am I going to make this choice? I don’t know.
But, that’s one of the dialectics. I need the answers, but I don’t have the answers. It’s okay. I can walk in the middle. I’m walking in the middle right now. I’ve probably lived most of my days right now openly accepting of my sexuality, which is also not fitting in a box. Bisexual doesn’t even quite cover it because some people don’t fit into a gender box, so I’m not just bisexual, I’m open. I’m pansexual. I’ve also been celibate for years and haven’t been in a relationship, and my last relationship was with a guy. I’m open for whatever the future might hold.
Most days, I’m just okay with that ambiguousness. There are still days when I don’t know if I could live through falling in love with a woman again. It’s just about killed me a couple of times in the past, but what’s almost killed me in the past doesn’t have to kill me in the future. I’m just learning to do this balancing, juggling act in my brain, and it takes a lot of work.
That’s one of the things about being on disability. I don’t think I could hold a job because just getting through the day, my brain is going one hundred miles an hour trying to be in a dialectic, balancing every choice that I make. Everything that I do, my brain is just going, going, going. I’m still not stable enough to lead a so-called “normal life,” holding down a job, doing nine-to-five, and having steady emotions. Even volunteer positions at the moment can push me over the edge. I’m like, “Too much! Too much stimuli, too many things to have to figure out too quickly, too many emotions, too many things coming at me, too many triggers.” Then I lose it, feel like I’ve taken twenty steps backwards, and then I feel sad again.
I’m learning to just pace myself, and it’s okay. I do what I can, when I can. Someday I might find a job that works for me. I might not. I might be mentally ill and on meds for the rest of my life, but I might not. Maybe I’ll find a way to get off meds one day. Maybe not. It’s okay.