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Cayla Hummel

is a suicide attempt survivor.
this is her story

Cayla Hummel

is a suicide attempt survivor.

"I survived a suicide attempt."

Cayla Hummel is from Cherry Hill, NJ. She was 20 years old and finishing up a degree in aerospace engineering and math when I interviewed her in Philadelphia, PA, on January 25, 2016.

CONTENT WARNING: graphic discussion of self-injury

We moved down to Alabama when I was nine years old. That was a complete and total culture shock. Most people don’t realize that the south and the north are two completely and totally different places. You wouldn’t think it because they’re still in the United States, but they are like polar opposites. That was quite an adjustment. Then we moved out to a rural area, so that was even more of an adjustment. I was home schooled, too.

I enjoyed being home schooled. It worked out really well for me. You do have to be careful with it and make sure that you have enough social interaction, because that was something that was hard for me when I went onto college. But I’ll go back to that in a sec.

When I was thirteen, my parents started doing foster care. We had different kids from different backgrounds. We had a total of six kids in five years. That was pretty awesome. I loved it. I would do that again in a heartbeat. That was one of my favorite things.

But about the time that we had our first foster kid, maybe a little bit before, [I experienced] some things that I found out about a year and a half ago are considered sexual assault. I didn’t know that at the time. I had just thought it was normal, but it didn’t feel right. It didn’t look right. I just thought it was normal and I was overreacting.

Des: Oh my god. Say that again.

Cayla: I thought it was just normal and I was overreacting. I was being too sensitive.Turns out that’s not the case, but I know that now.

So, we’d have foster kids. We have this foster child that we had for a year and a half, and he ends up getting sent back to his mother. We just all kind of fall apart at that point, because when the child came to us, he had several broken bones. Like, twenty-seven broken bones. His femur was snapped in half. It was a very bad case. It was awful.

Des: How could they?

Cayla: They didn’t have a perpetrator. They couldn’t find out who did it. He’s been back with his mom and there’s been no issues with them since then, so it turned out really well.

But at the time, it was really difficult. About that time, I had started going to a community college, and I finished up my high school classes at the community college because I was home schooled. It was easier to finish up high school classes because it’s harder when you get into high school to find things that are at the high school level.

I found a support system at my community college. They may not have signed up to be my support system, but they ended up becoming my support system.

One of my teachers was really good at telling whether or not I was okay. She would be like, “Are you okay?”

I’d go, “Yeah, I’m fine.”

She’d say, “No, you’re not okay. What’s wrong?” For the next year that I was there, she’d be like, “You can just come sit and cry in my office. It is perfectly acceptable to do that.” There were a couple times that I would do that.

I struggled with depression and anxiety to some degree from like twelve to thirteen until about seventeen. I think I was eighteen when my foster brother left. That just set things off. It was the tipping point. It was like I couldn’t handle it.

That was the first time that I had really bad thoughts of suicide. Really bad thoughts. I remember I went to this teacher’s office, and I was like, “Ms. Randall, I really don’t want to be here. I don’t want to be here at all.”

She’s like, “What do you mean?”

I was like, “I don’t want to be here, like alive, like existing.”

I don’t remember exactly what she said. I’m really good, I’ve found, at blocking things from my memory. I blocked things like even my suicide attempt. I don’t remember everything about it. I just remember bits and pieces of it. I remember standing in Ms. Randall’s doorway telling her, “I don’t want to be here.”

She made me go talk to one of my other teachers who kind of knew some of the things that were going on. He was a psychology teacher. He had practiced psychology for several years before becoming a teacher, so she was like, “You need to go talk to him. I’m a math teacher. I don’t compute in psychology. But you’re going to go talk to him because you guys already have somewhat of a relationship.”

I got through that, and then I ended up going out to MSU. All of this happened while I was in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, at the community college because that was close to home. I go out to MSU and about three quarters of the way through the semester, I start stuttering. I’ve never stuttered before in my life. Not as a kid. Not a teenager. Never before in my life. I just wake up one morning and I’m stuttering. And it’s bad, for every single word.

They were like, “What is wrong with you? Did you have stress?”

I had all this medical testing done. They take me to Children’s Hospital in Birmingham because I’m still eighteen, so I can still go there.

I have what they call conversion disorder. It’s stroke-like symptoms brought on by stress or depression. Basically, what I’d done is I had kept it all bottled up because I wasn’t seeing any counselor. Nobody knew that I was having these issues. I was having this depression, this anxiety, this constant fight going on inside my head. There were a couple people who knew, but they were one hundred and fifty miles away in Tuscaloosa. That’s not very helpful when you’re sitting there fighting day after day, fighting to get up, fighting to go to class, fighting to pay attention in class.

Des: And then you can’t communicate on top of it all.

Cayla: Now I can’t communicate on top of it all. They started me in counseling. They were like, you don’t really have a choice; now you have to go to counseling. So, I went through that year.

I finished out that semester. Everybody was like, “Why are you finishing out the semester? You know you don’t have to finish the semester.”

I was like, “I have to finish the semester. Are you kidding me? This takes everything else from me. I am finishing. This is being done. I’m not having to deal with this again.”

Des: I’m doing the thing.

Cayla: I’m doing this, and I’m going to finish. You’re just going to have to deal with the fact that you don’t want me to finish because I’m going to do it. So, I finished out the semester. Spring semester goes pretty well, pretty calmly. Then I’m there for the summer too because I avoid going home. I don’t like going home. I couldn’t tell you why at that point. I just don’t like going home, so I’m there for the summer.

It’s really dark inside my head. It’s really, really dark. I didn’t ever attempt suicide over the summer, but I definitely had some pretty good plans. I started medicines over the summer. One of the medicines told me to go jump off the seventh floor of Rice Hall, which is the building I was staying in at the time. I was like, “Yeah, this one’s not very helpful.”

Des: They’ll do that to you.

Cayla: Yes, like, “Guys, this would have been good information to have. You know, I probably shouldn’t be the only one staying in my dorm room at the time when I’m starting these meds.” Lessons learned. Now I know to tell people when I’m starting new medicines.

Then I start in the fall semester. Things are really dark because in the summer, I had also started restricting what I was eating. I lost a good bit of weight. I wasn’t anorexic, but I was heading down that road.

In the fall, I had a plan. I knew when I was going to do it. I was going to, but I had a half marathon that day. So, I was going to run a half marathon, I was going to get all of these things in order, and then I was going to kill myself. Obviously, the last part of my plan didn’t work. I was too busy.

Des: That was an ambitious plan for the day.

Cayla: Yeah, it was very ambitious. I always forget that after you run a half marathon or run any distance, that’s kind of too much for the day and you’re done. But it was a good thing that I had the half marathon, because otherwise, I probably wouldn’t be having this conversation.

Because I definitely would have completely gone through with it.

Des: Too tired to kill yourself.

Cayla: Yeah, that’s the good thing about staying busy.

In December, I went home for winter break, and then I was like, “Wait, those things that [I experienced], they weren’t normal. They weren’t right.”

I get it now… why I struggle with this stuff to some degree. I’d probably struggle with it anyway. I kind of have a disposition that would struggle with it. But that’s kind of what set it off.

When I started figuring it out, I couldn’t handle it. I didn’t know how to handle it. I didn’t have a counselor at the time that I figured it out, and I was on meds, but they were not the right meds. I finally found the right meds a year and a half later.

There were a couple nights I couldn’t get out of bed. I was having a hard time. I was having… I would call them flashbacks. I don’t know that they necessarily fall into that category, but they were somewhere between flashbacks and dreams. They’re really weird, and I don’t like them. I would dissociate a lot and I was not okay. I was like, “I just want to be done. I just want to get out of here and I want to be done.”

I tried once and then my roommate came in. [I had a plan]. I was going to be very thorough. It was going to happen, but then my roommate came in. I was like, “I can’t leave the room without her knowing something’s wrong,” because at this point, it was later at night.

They always say, “Wait twenty-four hours before you do anything.” Twenty-four hours later, I was still doing the same thing, and again, my roommate came in. You can thank my roommate that I’m still alive because if she hadn’t come in either of those nights, I would not still be here.

Des: Have you?

Cayla: Oh, yes. Several times.

I’m a lot better now. I got back into counseling. I took the summer off of school and that helped a lot. I decided to take a year off of school which has helped immensely. It’s amazing what happens when you’re not going through med changes and school at the same time.

I see from your facial expression that you understand what I say when I say med changes.

Des: Yeah, awful.

Cayla: Yeah, they’re awful enough by themselves, and then you add the stress of school.

Des: Been there. Been there.

Cayla: Hate it. I hate it.

Des: I was off meds for eight years. Then I was really suicidal in 2013. I went to my therapist. She was like, “DBT or medication?”

I was like, “No DBT, because [I don’t like] groups.”

I went to this psychiatrist. She gave me a list, and I was like, “Okay. I don’t know.” I was supposed to go to Cambodia in a couple weeks, so when I finally filled the prescription, I was like, “I’m waiting until I get to Cambodia because I’m going to be on vacation, sort of.” I was going in with an NGO and my wife to document developmentally delayed children. But if anything happened, I could not go out that day or whatever. That was a really good situation for a med change, waking up to the monks chanting in the morning.

Cayla: Yes.

Des: I’ve been through the med changes during a semester, and it’s just a really great time.

Cayla: Yes, it actually makes you so exhausted that you’re like a zombie in class. Thankfully, I had one teacher who was like, “I realize that you’re going through med changes right now, and I realize that you don’t need to be taking this medicine again. So you’re going to call the doctor and you’re going to tell them that you don’t need to take this medicine again. And then you’re going to go and you’re going to sit in the class, and you’re going to draw pretty pictures so that if you hear anything, maybe it’ll sink in. If not, you can get notes from somebody else.”

Des: What a teacher.

Cayla: He’s an awesome man.

Des: So, you were not in school when we met.

Cayla: Nope.

Des: And yet you showed up to my talk.

Cayla: Yep.

Des: That’s funny.

Cayla: My roommate is in school, so I knew that this was going on.

Des: If I recall, you had just…

Cayla: Yes.

Des: “Had an argument with a cat.”

Cayla: Yes.

Des: And you were not doing well that evening.

Cayla: No.

Des: What happened? You just ended your story in, say, summer. You stopped there.

Cayla: I mean, I still struggle. I still have issues. They still come back and I still fight every single day or every hour of the day. But I have reasons to live. I have a boyfriend who cares about me, and we want to eventually get married and have kids. We want to have a future together. I have friends who care about me, and they want me to stay around.

Des: You have marathons to run.

Cayla: Yeah, I’ve got marathons to run. I ran one in November. That was awful. It was an awful marathon.

Des: That seems like some amount of torture.

Cayla: It is. Especially because I did not train for it.

Des: Oh my god. A full marathon?

Cayla: Yeah. Don’t ever do that. It took me six and a half hours.

Des: Do I look like I’m going to do that?

Cayla: You could. Running is fun.

Des: Sitting is also fun, at a computer. Tweeting about my stupid thoughts. Marathons to run. Go on.

Cayla: Yeah, I’ve got a life to live. I’ve got things to do. Sometimes I still border dangerously close to an accidental because of things like interactions with cats. They go very deep…

Des: I used to say that; “My cat’s gotten me.”

Cayla: Yeah, I have said that before.

Des: It’s like, it really got to you.

Cayla: I was going to say, some of mine have been like… I don’t think a cat could have done that, but okay.

Des: You have a tiger? There’s a tiger in your house?

Cayla: Granted, I have a pretty vicious cat sometimes, so I tell people, “You’ve not met my cat. He can be pretty impressive.”

Des: So, you went down the eating disorder path.

Cayla: Yes.

Des: And you came back?

Cayla: Yes.

Des: How did you do that?

Cayla: Counseling. We talked about it. My counselor had a daughter who was anorexic, so she was very vigilant as to where you are with eating and stuff. It was also something that scared me because I know how dangerous they can be. I know that they can be very dangerous. To me, cutting isn’t that dangerous. I realize that it can be very dangerous. I’ve cut myself pretty deep, and I can attest that it can be very dangerous. But to me, eating disorders are more dangerous because you can be fine one minute and then you can fall off the face of the planet the next. It’s also harder to get out of that hole.

Des: Right, it’s like you almost retrain your mind.

Cayla: You do. Even still, the way that I look at food, I still struggle with it a lot some days. Other days, I’m fine. But some days, it’s still like, “Mm, no. You don’t need to eat anything. You’re too big. No, no, no. No food. Food is bad; bad, bad food.”

Des: So, you came back from that. Talk about the cutting more. You’ve clearly mentioned that it’s about control.

Cayla: Oh, yes.

Des: But sometimes you lose control.

Cayla: Yes.

Des: Also familiar with that. I guess the thing that I’ve been most interested in lately about cutting is it being a valid coping method. A lot of people are afraid of it, but it helps.

Cayla: It helps, but it’s very dangerous.

Des: Where’s the line, right?

Cayla: Honestly, it borders on an addiction. Yeah, alcohol helps some people. Cigarettes help some people. Now, tell them to stop. Tell a cutter to stop cutting. It’s not that easy.

Des: It’s similar to both those things. You have to want to.

Cayla: You have to want to, and you also have to have the willpower to.

Des: Shit’s hard.

Cayla: Uh huh. And it releases endorphins. It makes you feel good. It makes you feel better. Yes, it’s painful, but when you have so much stuff going on inside your head, when there’s so much pain and confusion, or anxiety going on inside your head, that physical pain is real.

It’s real and you know it. You know what it looks like. I know, for me, I can see the blood and I know that I’m still alive. Sometimes I get lost and I don’t know if—am I still breathing? Am I still alive? But if I’m still bleeding, I must still be alive.

Des: Right. Where are you with it now?

Cayla: Well, I’ve been good for the last couple weeks. Coming up to see grandparents helps because I don’t really care to have to answer questions about, “What are all these on your arm?”

Des: Are you just wearing long sleeves forever? Do they know?

Cayla: That I’m cutting? No.

Des: You have very visible scars.

Cayla: Yes, I do.

Des: You live in a long sleeve shirt when you’re around them.

Cayla: Well, I see them about once a year. So if I come up during the winter, in case you haven’t noticed, it’s a lot colder up here than it is in the south.

Des: Have you gotten to a point where you’ve tried to stop? Actively been like, “I am not doing this anymore.”

Cayla: I have, and then I got to other things that I didn’t know how to handle. I dissociate sometimes. More specifically, I depersonalize, so that means that I kind of become like an observer. We’ll be sitting, having a conversation, and sometimes I can see us having a conversation. It freaks me out.

Des: Fair.

Cayla: Pain helps bring me back. So, I started cutting again when I started dissociating. I did pretty well. I had gone for over a month without cutting, and then…

Des: Right.

Cayla: Just not quite there yet, I guess.

Des: I ask these questions because I made the decision to stop, which you’ve heard me say, but it’s never that simple.

Cayla: It’s not. It’s a factor.

Des: Yeah. This year will be ten years since I was like, “Fuck this, I cannot do this.” I’ve cut myself probably six or seven times, or I can go longer stretches, but it’s really scary that it still comes back, that that’s the first impulse.

Cayla: It’s the first thing that you want to do.

Des: You’re still having these urges. Has it gotten to a point yet where it feels like it doesn’t help?

Cayla: Occasionally. Before I started dissociating again, it had. But then I started dissociating and then…

Des: That’s my struggle now. When I feel the impulse and I want to do it, then I get to the point where I’m going to do it or do, and it just hurts and it doesn’t help. Then there’s the shame that comes along with it because, “You didn’t do this for three years. What the fuck is wrong with you?” It’s hard. I feel like that’s almost harder to talk about than trying to kill yourself.

Cayla: Yeah, it is. People look at it as if you’re just trying to get attention. It’s like, “No, I’m not trying to get attention. If I wanted to get your attention, all I have to do is start stuttering.” Sincerely. That’s all I have to start doing.

One of the ways that I cope with stuttering is I spell my sentences, which is very entertaining. I’ll be at work and I’ll be calling out for a side of fruit or something like that, and I’ll just spell the entire sentence. It’s very entertaining. If I really wanted to get your attention, I’ll just spell an entire sentence at you.

Des: Right. There are different ways.

Cayla: There are different and much more effective ways, much more entertaining ways.

Des: That was my next question, actually. Say more about conversion disorder and where you are with it because now I’m hearing that it still happens.

Cayla: Yes, it does. I don’t really know when it happens. It just kind of happens sometimes. If I’m really tired, I know it happens.

Sometimes, when I’m at work, if there’s a lot going on, I’ll just be like, “I can’t handle this. Okay, I-n-e-e-d-a-s-i-d-e-o-f-f-r-u-i-t-f-o-r-h-e-r-e.” I need a side of fruit for here. I’ll just spell it out. Or sometimes I’ll talk in Pig Latin or in other languages because that works.

Yeah, speech is still sometimes an issue. I don’t really know why. I haven’t really cared enough to figure out why. I probably should care enough to figure out why.

Des: Have you been to speech therapy at all?

Cayla: No, it’s really hard to find speech therapists for adults.

Des: But it sounds like you’re employing techniques, and you just picked those up on your own.

Cayla: Sometimes I use sign language. I don’t know if you remember, but when we first met, I would sign.

Des: Yeah, you’re weren’t talking. You were having trouble with it that day.

Cayla: Yeah. It comes and it goes. I just kind of deal with it when it comes up. Most of the time, if I tell myself, “Stop, slow down, back up, take a deep breath,” then I can move forward. It’s frustrating.

Des: I bet. I think not being able to communicate is universally an issue that anyone who goes through mental health issues has, like, “How do I express how much this hurts to you with words?” If you lose your ability to do words, there’s another layer.

Cayla: I used to write things. I had a hard time speaking about emotions anyway. With the stutter, every time I tried to talk about emotions, my stutter would get exponentially worse. What my counselor and I would do first, I would just write it. I’d just hand it to my counselor and be like, “You have to read this. I can’t.” As time went on, she started making me read it out loud until I could get to the point where I could say it.

Des: You made an impression the first time I met you. You kept saying you were okay. I think you skipped away, and I was like, “That girl is not okay. She’s not having a good day. I don’t know what’s happening.” But you did what I asked you to and you emailed me.

Cayla: Yeah, see?

Des: Yeah, you did. So it’s like, you have trouble admitting when shit’s hard.

Cayla: Oh, yeah.

Des: But then you’ll do something. Is that kind of standard? You wouldn’t admit to me that it was hard, really. But then you emailed me.

Cayla: If we had been writing, it would have been easier for me to admit that it was hard. Part of that has to do with words and part of that had to do with the fact that there were also people around.


Des: Talk about the depersonalization.

Cayla: It comes and goes. I didn’t really know what it was, so I didn’t realize what it was until I started in counseling. I was like, “Oh, I’ve done this off and on for most of my life, since I was like twelve or thirteen.”

Des: Are there strategies for getting out of that, other than cutting yourself?

Cayla: A lot of times, it’s just like… be mindful. There’s a big thing into mindfulness right now, which I’ve actually been in counseling for a really long time. But, be aware of what your surroundings are, and you can bring it all back into yourself. That helps some and meditation helps some. It’s also very time consuming.

Des: How cognizant are you of the different things that trigger you? It sounds like there could be a few.

Cayla: It depends what it is. I know going home is a big trigger for everything. I kind of avoid it. That’s just not a good idea. If I can avoid going home, not going to do it. I know that if I’ve had a long day or a busy week, being at home by myself is probably not the best idea. Even if my roommate’s there, it might not be enough. So I go to my boyfriend’s or have my boyfriend come up to where I am. We’re in a long-distance relationship.

Des: That’s so hard.

Cayla: Yeah, we live an hour and a half away from each other.

Des: That’s not awful.

Cayla: No, it’s not awful, but it’s not easy either, because he’s in school and I’m working full-time. He works almost full-time, in addition to being in school. Finding the time can be difficult.

Those times, it’s better and safer to be with somebody else. I go over to a friend’s house and sit and sew, or watch old movies or something like that. I don’t know. I should pay better attention. I usually just try and stay busy.

Des: That works.

Cayla: Yeah, the better options.

Des: Yeah, it’s a coping method. Are you able to be open with your friends? How much do they know?

Cayla: It depends which ones. I’m fairly open, like with the fact that I struggle with mental illness, that I take meds for mental illness, and I go to a counselor and a psychiatrist. I struggle with a lot of things. I don’t necessarily say that I struggle with cutting. I don’t necessarily give specifics. Some of my friends know—they’ll get the text messages of, “I really, really want to cut,” or, “Can I come over because I’m not safe right now?” I have quite a couple who are aware. My boss is aware.

Des: Wow. Is your boss a friend?

Cayla: My boss and my counselor are friends, which is kind of entertaining at times. It’s really interesting. She’ll help me with this.

Des: That’s cool. Can you call out depressed?

Cayla: No. I don’t want to do that.

Des: But you can say, “I’m having a shitty day.”

Cayla: When I get in there, I can be like, “I’m awful. I either need to stay in the back and do dishes or I need to go home.” I can tell her that.

Des: Talk more about meds and your experience with them.

Cayla: I had meds. I love meds. I hate meds. I love the meds I’m on. I hate trying to find the right meds.

The meds that I’m on now work really well. How many different types of meds I’ve had to try… I’ve tried quite a few different types. But I react very strongly to side effects. There was the one type, Lamictal, that can give you a rash and I got a rash from it.

Des: Did you titrate up too fast?

Cayla: I took one pill. I think I took half of one pill.

Des: Oh my god. That’s the medication I’m on, and it’s the best thing ever for me.

Cayla: I’m on Topamax right now. Topamax and Risperidone.

Des: How’s that?

Cayla: It works out pretty well. They’ve actually worked for me. Antidepressants didn’t really work. For some people, they do. But not for me.

Des: What is your official diagnosis? Not that it really matters, but I’m curious.

Cayla: I have depression and anxiety, with some type of features. Then I have a personality disorder, not otherwise specified, with histrionic and schizotypal features.

Des: How do you feel about that?

Cayla: I don’t necessarily agree with the histrionic part quite so much. But that’s mostly the conversion disorder. Histrionic is pretty much like you’re trying to get attention. People who know me look at me like, “You don’t try to get attention, you’re the one in the back doing dishes. The first month that you started working here, you were in the back doing dishes the entire time. This doesn’t make sense.” The conversion disorder, though, tries to get the attention. It’s just trying to get some type of attention because it’s saying something’s wrong.

Schizotypal features are like the depersonalization and the anti-social parts of me. I’m better at it now, but I have a really hard time meeting people. I have a lot of social anxiety with people who I’m not already close with. It’s just a lot of it and it doesn’t necessarily go away with time. Sometimes it does. With some people it does, but not with all people.

Des: It depends on the day, right?

Cayla: Yeah, more or less. So, with all those things, I also don’t quite look at the world the way that other people do sometimes.

Des: Do you feel like knowing where you live in the DSM, if you will, is useful to your life?

Cayla: I like being able to name it. I don’t know if you’ve ever read the book A Wind in the Door by Madeleine L’Engle. In the book, the main premise is naming things. One of the main characters, Meg, is given the job of naming things. There’s this force called Ecthroi. She doesn’t figure this out, but she has to name this force. It’s important to be named because when you’re named, you kind of feel important.

Des: Validated.

Cayla: Validated. That’s a good word. You’re validated. You’re there. You exist. When she names it—it’s a dark force and it goes away. So, I like being able to name things because I name it, and it has a little less power.

It also gave him a way to help start treating me. I went and I had a whole psych evaluation done, which is where they gave me my diagnosis. It was very long. It was like four hours of testing.

But that’s where they told him I might benefit from antipsychotics. That’s what I’m on right now, and I have not had a major depressive episode in, like, two months. That is the longest I have gone without a major depressive episode in a really long time. I am ecstatic.

Des: Yeah. Naming things, that’s funny. It’s like this whole shift that I do, the attempt survivor fight. In the beginning, I didn’t even know what to call myself. I was like, “How do I label myself?”

Like I said at the talk, it makes sense to call us “suicide survivors,” but that phrase was taken by loss survivors. These past couple of years, it’s like trying to teach people to tease these two phrases apart. We’re all survivors; we’re just different kinds. Saying “suicide survivor” and being a loss survivor is invalidating for the people who actually survived it. Where are you supposed to live or how are you supposed to feel if you don’t even have…

Cayla: You don’t have a name.

Des: Yeah, you don’t have a name. I don’t walk around every day thinking, “I’m a suicide attempt survivor,” but with the work, being able to say that and have people understand… in a way, that is important.

Cayla: And some days, when you’re down and you’re suicidal, it helps to be able to say, “I’m a survivor. I’ve survived this. I can do it. I’ve done it before.”

Des: Yeah. What about the phrase “mental illness?” How do you feel?

Cayla: I don’t know, because I do have a mental illness.

Des: Tell me why.

Cayla: Because there are things in my brain that are not right.

Des: What about trauma?

Cayla: What about it?

Des: Have you thought about it from the lens of having lived through trauma?

Cayla: Some. It’s hard for me to think from different perspectives. My counselor hates me for it.

Des: This is where I’m confused and why I always use air quotes when I say “mental illness,” because I don’t know.

Cayla: The trauma causes my mental illness.

To me, it’s kind of like, okay, I have a broken bone. I got it from a gunshot wound. So, do I have a gunshot wound or do I have a broken bone? I have a broken bone. Now then, how did I get this broken bone? I got it from a gunshot wound. So, if you ask me that, how did I get my mental illness? I got it from trauma.

Des: I thought you said you had troubles thinking about this from a different perspective. You just made a great analogy.

Cayla: For myself. I’m explaining it to you, so it’s easier.

Des: You did great. But now you have a gunshot wound.

Cayla: So, it is still mental illness. It’s just brought on by something else.

Des: Then I guess my next question is: ideally, one day you’re going to have the meds that work long-term, and you’re going to feel great for a year or two years, three years. Are you going to have a mental illness then?

Cayla: Honestly, I don’t know, because I can’t imagine what that’s like. I can’t imagine not fighting these things inside my head for longer than a half hour. I can’t imagine that. I don’t know what that’s like. I don’t remember what that’s like. But if I’m still on meds…

Des: I’m just asking you questions, like conversations we have all the time.

Cayla:Yeah, that’s why I’m trying to think.

Des:In our house, we have so many conversations about assisted dying. There are rules. It’s only terminal illnesses. Even if you have Alzheimer’s, you can’t make that choice because you don’t have the capacity. I think that’s a tragedy.

Cayla: But see, that’s too much like suicide for me.

Des: Would you want to live if your mind and your body were deteriorating? That stresses me out.

Cayla: But that’s still like suicide.

Des: Is it, though? With Alzheimer’s specifically, you start to lose your cognition.

Cayla: With Alzheimer’s, I get it a little bit more. But other terminal illnesses, I don’t know. That’s too much like suicide.

Des: Which part? What is it, specifically?

Cayla: Assisted dying. I don’t remember what it’s called exactly.

Des: People call it assisted dying, assisted suicide, whatever. So, the question was—I’m just building it up for you. You have cancer; you can make that choice. If you have Alzheimer’s, you cannot make that choice, even though you are going to die from this because it’s degenerative. But you can’t make the choice because you are cognitively…

Cayla: Impaired.

Des: Right. Assuming we were to ever have the conversation about mental illness and making that choice, I get really caught up in the idea of capacity. If you’ve ever had a mental illness, you do not have the capacity to make this choice. So I wonder, similarly to, “Are you mentally ill if you’ve been fine for three or however many years…” I feel like that kind of perpetuates this idea we have in this culture that people who deal with this shit are somehow lesser. That really bugs me.

Cayla: The whole of assisted suicide bugs me.

Des: Say more.

Cayla: I don’t think that it’s really any different than suicide. Honestly, most of the time, it’s just a well-planned out suicide. That’s all that it is. You’re just doing it under medical guidance. I planned to kill myself in October for three months. What’s the difference?

Des: Are you saying that being able to take the agency and make the choice to die is inherently bad? Philosophy.

Cayla: Philosophy. I think that choosing to die is not in our hands. I’m a Christian, so I believe that God…

Des: Thank you. Bring it on out.

Cayla: I will admit it. I have no qualms about admitting it. I do believe that God decides when we’re to die. I also think that life is precious. And I feel like, if you’re going to fight so hard for people to stay alive… We fight every single day for people to not die by suicide. We fight for people to not take their life. And then there are people who can just go ahead and take their life with the help…

Des: Qualify that. What kind of people?

Cayla: Okay, there are terminally ill people who can take their life with the help of a doctor. I understand that they’re terminally ill. But there are still so many things that you can do, even while terminally ill.

Depression could be considered a terminal illness.

Des: Not by most, but I agree.

Cayla: I’m serious, though. There’s a high chance that I will never completely be rid of depression. That I will never be, without meds, without anything, rid of depression. There’s a pretty good probability that I will never be completely rid of it. That’s terminal. That’s long-term.

Des: Acute. Chronic.

Cayla: Chronic, that’s a better word. It can be just as deadly. So, what’s the difference?

Des: Next question. There’s this concept of a good death. It’s usually paired with assisted dying. Someone who is terminally ill wants to make the choice to have a good death, like being surrounded by family, before they completely fall apart and they have no agency in all of this. Do you think a good death would not be God’s will? Would God not want that?

Cayla: That gets into a whole other question. That gets into the whole question of how does God let bad things happen to good people.

Des: And that’s a whole long conversation.

Cayla: I was going to say, because that’s basically the premise of that question.

Des: Free will, right?

Cayla: Right. By asking, “Does God not want a good death?” you’re asking, “Does God not want good things?”

Des: Right.

Cayla: Or, “Does God not want better things?”

Des: This is fun.

Cayla: Sorry, I’ve played this game a couple times.

Des: I enjoy it. I like to know what people who don’t necessarily agree with me think. It helps me maybe figure out what I believe in.

Cayla: I don’t know. I don’t think that a good death is necessarily all that it’s cracked up to be. In the end, you’re still dead. That sounds harsh and brutal, and I realize that. But no matter how you look at it, you’re still dead. If I die a good death or I die a brutal death, if I die peacefully in a hospital or I die in a pool of blood, I’m dead. Death is still death.

Des: The other question is: how do you reconcile this desire to die? Are you riddled with an extra element of guilt in addition because of that feeling?

Cayla: No, because feelings are not sinful. It’s the actions that go with feelings that are sinful. Feeling suicidal, that’s a feeling. Now, when I go and do the actions that are suicidal, yeah, I can have guilt over that.

I won’t say I have completely learned because I’m still in the middle of the process of learning that God doesn’t want us to be full of guilt. God didn’t create us to be guilty. Yeah, we’re going to sin. He says all have sinned, fallen short of the glory of God. He also says that, by His grace, we are all covered by Christ’s blood.

Des: That’s creepy.

Cayla: Yeah, it is. It is kind of creepy.

But if you think about it from that point, I wasn’t made to be ridden with guilt. When I first started dating my boyfriend, he told me that love is a choice. In a way, guilt is a choice. You kind of choose whether or not you’re going to be guilty. Kind of the way you choose whether or not you’re going to cut. It’s kind of the same way. It’s not always a clear cut, “I’m choosing this,” but it kind of is.

So, you say, “Look, I believe that God has forgiven me for this.” Some people say that they believe it, but the fact that they’re guilty over it suggests that they’re still holding onto something about that, whether it’s the fact that they did it or something around it. They’re still holding onto some piece of it, and they haven’t let go of it fully.

Des: Okay, so my brain went back to this question about God wanting good and bad things for people.God doesn’t want us to be guilty? I feel like they’re related in my brain. How can I express that for you?

Cayla: God doesn’t want us to be guilty, but wants good and bad things. He wants us to be convicted of sin, but think about it. When you’re guilty of something, you’ve usually been convicted about something. You feel convicted of something and then you feel guilty about it. He doesn’t want us to feel guilty about it. He just wants us to feel convicted and then turn around and do something about that conviction. You say, “Oh, I feel so bad about lying to that person.” Instead of ruminating about feeling bad and lying to that person, go say sorry and tell the truth.

Des: Don’t be a dick.

Cayla: Yeah. Do the action. Acknowledge the fact that you’ve done something wrong. Turn around. Do the action that you should have done in the first place and apologize for what you did do that was wrong.

Does that make sense?

Des: Yes. Okay, let’s get off the God thing. I’m not a religious person, I don’t even think that I believe in God—I’m not sure—but I’ve found that the stories I appreciate the most are the ones where people have a really strong faith base. No idea why, but I really love it.

Cayla: He has put people in my life who have pulled me through this. Without them in my life, I would not have made it through. They showed God throughout my journey so far, and they keep bringing Him back into my picture.

Des: Is suicide still an option?

Cayla: I wish I could tell you no, but it’s still ever-present. I can’t tell you that it’s not.

Des: What do you think it would take for it not to be?

Cayla: Gosh. A new brain? I don’t think that’s an option, though. It’s going to take more of my own acceptance, me accepting myself more.

Des: Do you feel like the help that you have received is adequate?

Cayla: Yeah.

Des: Exceptional?

Cayla: I wouldn’t say that it was exceptional, but especially considering where I am… I’m in rural Mississippi. I go to counseling on campus. I love my counselor on campus.

Des: They do seem a bit exceptional.

Cayla: They are. The counseling center out there is really quite awesome. Kudos to my counselor, because she has been with me through some pretty rough stuff. She’s helped me through a lot of stuff that probably was a bit above her pay grade.

Des: Is there any cutoff in services?

Cayla: I don’t know if technically they’re supposed to be, but I’ve never been cut off.

Des: Thank god, right?

Cayla: Yeah. There were rumors that there’s supposed to be, but I’ve never been cut off from services from there. I’ve been going there for like two years, and you can go once a week all semester.

Des: Nice.

Cayla: Yeah. Now, you can’t go more than once a week, which has been an issue at some points when I was really bad.

Des: Why did you decide to tell your story? You were real hesitant in the beginning when you came up to me. You didn’t even know if you wanted to talk to me.

Cayla: When I went up to you, I didn’t know anything to say to you. I wanted to talk to you, but I was like, “I don’t know what to say. I don’t know what to ask.” I just knew that I should talk to you. I don’t know why. I just knew that I should do this.

Over the last couple months, I’ve been more like, “I should tell this.” I’ve been becoming more open with people, especially at work and stuff. I will just talk more and more about suicide and suicide prevention. In March of last year, which was before all of this, I wasn’t quite as bold as I am now. Since then, really, I’ve become more open about it. I’d even thought about sharing it. At that point, I’d only been eight or nine six months out from it, and I was still not okay. You remember. I was not okay.

Des: Yeah, I was really worried about you. I was like, “Oh, god. I hope she emails me.”

Cayla: Yeah, it’s usually not the easiest, but like I said, it’s been a growing desire to tell. Go out and tell… You need to tell stories. It’s the only way to get it out there. I’ve become more and more convinced that the only way to help other people like me is to make other people aware of people like me.

Cayla’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 Alison Rutledge for providing the transcription to Cayla’s interview, and to Sara Wilcox for editing.

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About Live Through This
Live Through This is a series of portraits and true stories of suicide attempt survivors. Its mission is to change public attitudes about suicide for the better; to reduce prejudice and discrimination against attempt survivors; to provide comfort to those experiencing suicidality by letting them know that they’re not alone and tomorrow is possible; to give insight to those who have trouble understanding suicidality, and catharsis to those who have lost a loved one; and to be used as a teaching tool for clinicians in training, or anyone else who might benefit from a deeper understanding of first-person experiences with suicide.
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Tax-deductible donations are made possible by Fractured Atlas, a non-profit arts service organization, which sponsors Live Through This. Contributions for the charitable purposes of Live Through This must be made payable to Fractured Atlas only and are tax-deductible to the extent permitted by law.
Please Stay
If you’re hurting, afraid, or need someone to talk to, please reach out to one of the resources below. Someone will reach back. You are so deeply valued, so incomprehensibly loved—even when you can’t feel it—and you are worth your life.
Find Help

You can reach the 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline by dialing 988. Trans Lifeline is at 877-565-8860 (U.S.) or 877-330-6366 (Canada). The Trevor Project is at 866-488-7386. If you’d like to talk to a peer, contains links to warmlines in every state. If you’re not in the U.S., click here for a link to crisis centers around the world. If you don’t like talking on the phone, you can reach the Crisis Text Line by texting HOME to 741-741.

NOTE: Many of these resources utilize restrictive interventions, like active rescues (wellness or welfare checks) involving law enforcement or emergency services. If this is a concern for you, you can ask if this is a possibility at any point in your conversation. Trans Lifeline does not implement restrictive interventions for suicidal people without express consent. A warmline is also less likely to do this, but you may want to double-check their policies.

Live Through This is dedicated to the lives of so many friends and family members lost to suicide over the years. If you would like to add the name of a loved one to this list, please email me.
Live Through This is dedicated to the lives of so many friends and family members lost to suicide over the years. If you would like to add the name of a loved one to this list, please email me.