Diana Cortez Yañezis a suicide attempt survivor.
"I survived a suicide attempt."
Diana Cortez Yañez is a hairstylist and public speaker originally from Mexico and raised in Tacoma, WA. She was 51 years old when I interviewed her in Seattle, WA, on March 1, 2016.
I started suffering from depression in my early twenties.
As soon as I started those feelings of sadness, I thought it was depression because I was sleepy all the time. I didn’t want to go out of my house. I was almost afraid of people, and I’m very social, so it was just not like me. I was suicidal immediately. I felt like I wanted things to end. I was very religious, and it surprised me that not even my hope in God, my faith in God, could help me feel better. But because of my culture—Mexican—and because they don’t believe really in therapy, or even emotional problems—they kind of ignore them—I wasn’t encouraged to go to a therapist. I went to a medical doctor first, after a long time. He medicated me. At the time, I don’t know if antidepressants were new, or he didn’t know a lot about them, but he just kept trying one thing and another and it wasn’t working. Things were getting worse and worse.
I went to see a therapist finally—my mom was so desperate—and he was wonderful. He was super considerate and loving. Since he was such a professional, [I was] so impressed with him that way. He was a professional, yet he cared. That’s when I learned—or admitted, I guess—that my childhood had been traumatic, because he did talk about that. He was very caring and validating about the experiences that I had had. But we never spoke about suicide the whole time I saw him. I saw him for six years.
After him, I was on medication, still trying different medications. They finally found one that seemed to help. I’m still on that medication to this day. But the suicidality continued. And every therapist I saw, even if they heard me talk about suicide at first when I went in, we never talked about it again. I don’t know if they were afraid of it or whatwas going on. I felt like not bringing it up, because they didn’t think it was important. When I’d go into the session, we’d just get really involved in what happened during the week. At the time, I was having a lot of chaos in my life, so we’d talk about that, and they’d give me some pointers on what I could do. It was more like encouragement. They’d be my cheerleaders, you know? They made my day-to-day life better, but my suicidality was progressing the whole time. I had ideation, and it went into a phase where I actually started planning. This was for years. Eventually, I chose a date and attempted.
My first attempt, I went into the hospital. I took pills, and nothing happened. I talked to [my family]. I told them what I had done. We went to the hospital, and at the hospital, I was treated the same. They would talk above me to whoever took me in. They’d ask, “Is she trying to kill or hurt herself?” Like I wasn’t there.
I was like, “Hello, I’m an adult.”
I remember spending at least an hour on my insurance information, and I was like, “Really? Now, this person’s coming in here with all of this emotional pain, and that’s what’s important to you?”
My first hospital experience was horrible. I went to the floor where they keep you. They went through all my stuff. I understand the necessity, but the invasion… I just felt like a criminal. They left me there with no instruction of what happens. I’d never been in the hospital before. Not like that. They said I’d see a doctor within twenty-four hours, and I didn’t see a doctor for like three days. Once I did, the doctor had my chart [in front of him]. I didn’t even see his face. He could not have been a doctor, for all I know. He just said, “Ah, okay. It looks like you’re on this medication. We can increase it. Okay, we’re done.” He didn’t ask me why I was in there, how I was feeling, nothing. I was in shock the entire time.
Finally, when they released me—I think it was maybe a couple of weeks—they released me back into the exact same situation I had gotten out of. I didn’t understand. I thought, “How was that helpful?” I didn’t try anything while I was in there, so maybe they had elongated my life for two more weeks, but I was going right back. They suggested I go to outpatient. I think they gave me a referral, but I just didn’t go. The lack of follow-up was really hard for me.
I went on again seeing therapists. Sometimes I’d see them, sometimes I wouldn’t. By then, I had already figured out all of the vocabulary from it, so I didn’t really feel like they were doing much. My life got critical again. So, again, I attempted.
The first time, I didn’t even think about what I was taking. It ended up not being lethal enough, obviously. This time, I went to the library and I studied on it. I looked up a medical book, and I saw what the lethal amount of a certain medication was. I had access to it, so I took five times that amount.
I thought that was it, for sure. I woke up the next morning, not even sick. I thought for sure I would die. I thought, “Oh, maybe I vomited it or something…” Nothing. Again, I went to my mom and told her I needed to go to the hospital. She always reacted negatively. I think she just didn’t know how to react. I mean, I don’t think I’d know how I’d react if my daughter came [to me with] it, but I think I’d know what I wouldn’t do.
So, we had to go to the hospital again. This time, it was in California. In California, I think you have to go to a hospital for seventy-two hours for evaluation, because I remember not even going home after that. I went right to the hospital. This hospital was a little bit better. It was almost like the whole building was for people who… I don’t know if they were suicidal, but they had all the special rooms, and they did instruct me when I went in and everything.
I was there for a couple of weeks, but came back home. Had another couple of years where I was kind of doing okay, and that happened three more times in different places. One time, I tried to crash my car. I was drunk, but lucid enough to crash. I did that on purpose. That didn’t work out.
The last time, I thought, “This has to work.”I did all the preparation so that nobody could find me. One thing is that, in all of my attempts, alcohol was involved. I didn’t realize that was an issue, but now that I’m sober, I can so see why. When I was doing it, I thought that was the only thing that would keep me brave enough to be able to do it. I prepared everything, I went into a hotel, because I didn’t want to do it at home. I made sure my mom was out of town. By a miracle, they found me.
I really believe in a higher power now. I didn’t anymore before that, because I left my religion, but I did after they found me in the hotel—my sisters did. I went to Harborview, here in Seattle. When I went in there, I was expecting the same thing. By then, I already knew the wording about how to get out of there when I wanted to. After a couple of weeks or whatever, I would say, “Okay, I’m not suicidal anymore,” and they’d be like, “Okay, bye!”
I thought that this was going to be the same, but it wasn’t. A doctor came in and he was really direct right away. He said the word, the “s” word— which I could not believe—suicide. I was very surprised. Then he said, “I know people who are in your same situation who have overcome it and are able to live a life worth living. Can you trust me enough to try it?”
I was hopeless. By then, I was really, really hopeless. I thought I’d tried everything. I didn’t want to, but I thought, “What do I have left to lose?”I can always have that in the back of my mind. I could always do it at a different time. So I said, “Okay, fine.” He even walked me to the medical center where they did the DBT. They did a little intake, and asked me if I was willing to be in that kind of therapy for a year. I thought, “Oh my God.”A year seemed like so long.
But I did. It was really, really hard, because I had to do everything the opposite of depression. I had to get up, go there—I didn’t have a car, so I had to take the bus there, it was over an hour—and then had to interact with people. I was in a group thing, and then I had one-on-one with a counselor as well. In there, they ask you to do homework and everything, so it was a really, really difficult year.
I have to say, in that year, I got to a point where I wasn’t suicidal anymore. It wasn’t even in the back of my head, which had never happened.
I have to say, in that year, I got to a point where I wasn’t suicidal anymore. It wasn’t even in the back of my head, which had never happened. I didn’t think that was ever going to be the case. I ended up going to a second year of that. They actually help you get out of the system completely. I was on social security, I was in the mental health system, I’d been in it for twenty-five years, and I’m not anymore.
I know you’re going to ask me, but I’m going to tell you first—I’m not suicidal. I haven’t been since. I have some really dark days still. I think that things that happen that don’t go the way I’d like them to affect me maybe a little bit more than most people, but never to the degree where I don’t want to be here anymore. I’ve met people who are still suicidal, even though they’ve had a lot of help, but I think the difference is that I never really did want to die. I just wanted help. I just didn’t want to suffer.
Life seemed too hard for me, just regular life. Now, even when things are tough, I just feel like, “Oh, they’ll change.” Why I couldn’t see that before, I’m not sure. All I know is that that’s how I feel now, and it works. Sometimes, I’m really down, like even take a day to be home all day long and not see anybody and not do anything, but not with the intention of not being here anymore. Thank God I don’t feel that way anymore.
That’s pretty much my story.
Des: So, suicide’s not an option for you anymore?
Diana: No. Not even a little bit. I’m so grateful for that, because I know a lot of my friends where that’s not the case.
Des: Yeah. It’s tough. Tell me about your sobriety and how that played a role, because it sounds like it did.
Diana: Oh, huge. I actually didn’t become what I believe is an alcoholic until late in life, in my forties. When I started abusing alcohol, I was married and very unhappy. I started drinking more and more, and my husband, of course, was opposed to it. He was very religious—staunchly religious—and very controlling. The more he tightened the grip, the more I drank. It just got out of control. I’m a blackout drinker, so as soon as I started drinking, I’d black out. I thought I’d go to sleep, but later I found out that, no, actually, I keep going, just my brain falls asleep. It was dangerous. I drove that way. I don’t even know how I got home many times.
It was out of control. I left my husband, and I ended up staying with one of my sisters, the only one of my sisters who still talks to me. One night, I remember them offering me wine at dinner, because they didn’t believe that I was an alcoholic. I said, “No, I’m good,” but as soon as they went to bed, they left half a bottle of wine, and I said, “Oh, I’ll just finish that and go to sleep.” I was also on Ambien, though. So I took it.
Next thing I know, I wake up in the morning and there was glass all over my sister’s living room. I’m sleeping on one couch, and she’s sleeping on the other one. I thought, “Oh, God.”I had trashed their house.
She said, “This is it. I’m the only one you have left. I’m even going to have to close my doors to you if you don’t get help.”
By then, my mom had passed, and me and my mom had been really close. I hadn’t mentioned that. That was it. Screaming, and yelling, and cursing all the way to the detox center. I detoxed, didn’t wanna go to rehab, but I did. Twenty-eight days later, I got out. Still fiending for alcohol, but really believing in AA. I hooked up with AA right away and it saved my life. I haven’t drank since.
Des: How long ago was that?
Diana: That was three and a half years ago. In June, I’ll have four.
That’s what gave me the strength and the ability even to be able to go through DBT. I had tried it once before when my mom was alive, but because I was drinking, I didn’t get anything out of it. My mom passed during that time, and I dropped out. So really, that’s when I started drinking heavily.
After I got sober, I had nothing but time and space to learn, and I did. It was helpful.
Des: Do you not have a relationship with your sisters because of the long stretch of suicidal behavior?
Diana: No, I’m not sure. Sometimes, I think I would like to talk to them individually about it. The only ones who were affected to the degree that they’ve said something to me were my nieces and nephews, because I helped raise them. I was like their second mother, because a lot of my sisters were divorced. They were really affected by it. Several of them had expressed feeling anger, even. I’d been there for them, and then, maybe they felt like they needed me, and I wasn’t there. I feel they may have felt like I might have took something from them that they depended on.
Now, my sisters and I not speaking is because of the religion. I was a Jehovah’s Witness, I grew up that way. When you leave the religion and your family is still that religion, they can’t talk to you anymore. That’s where the estrangement happened. My brother, too.
Des: So sad.
Diana: Very sad. But I respect them—not for that—but their boundaries. I had been a Jehovah’s Witness, and I had been very strong in those beliefs, too. When you believe that’s what God wants from you, then you do it. But it is really sad.
Des: What made you change your mind?
Diana: Actually, the doubt started very young, but I learned when I was really young, with the trauma I had gone through, not to listen to myself. But I remember from very young, I didn’t like the whole “we’re separated from the whole world” kind of thing, like, “We’re better a little, because we’re gonna be saved and they’re not.” I had a really close best friend when I was growing up. It just killed me to think that she wasn’t going to survive Armageddon, which is what they teach. As I grew up, there were other people who weren’t [going to survive]. I had a friend who’s gay, and they say gay people weren’t going to make it.
What actually made me draw the line was the hypocrisy. My ex was that religion. He was very high up in the congregation, yet I knew what he did behind closed doors, and I knew that it wasn’t compatible. So, the hypocrisy of it, and I don’t believe the same beliefs that they do. I eventually got strong enough to decide to [leave].
Unfortunately, I lost my mom, I decided to leave my religion, and I divorced my husband all in the same year… so super traumatic year. That’s when my alcohol was just out of control. My suicidality, too.
What I believe about suicidality is that, at least for me, once a substance is involved, I feel like all bets are off.
What I believe about suicidality is that, at least for me, once a substance is involved, I feel like all bets are off. I think substances that change how you’re thinking, especially if they lower your inhibitions… if I’m already thinking of taking my life or [thinking] so, so bad that I don’t want to be around, that just makes it easier for me. I just wasn’t in my right mind.
That’s why, now, I for sure am opposed to alcohol. Any one of my friends who drinks still and are suicidal, I caution them and just say that, for me, every single time I attempted, I was drinking. I can see where it could go hand in hand, drinking and being suicidal.
Des: So, you left your religion, but do you still have faith?
Diana: I actually have more faith now. Let me see if I can try to explain this… When I was that religion, I was brought up that way. I was indoctrinated. Even though I did feel like it came from my heart, it was something I hadn’t learned. Now that I believe in spirituality, I feel like it’s something that I connected with, not something that I had to learn. Either believe in it or not believe in it. It just makes sense to me; it just feels right. It’s more of a feeling. I’ve met some of the more honest people in AA than I’ve ever met in church. It was interesting because that religion was very against AA. They said, “You know what we’re going do with a bunch of drunks?”
It was so amazing to me to go [to AA] and see this big bearded guy with tattoos all over the place come off a bike and just say some of the most honest, sincere feeling stuff that I’ve ever felt. I think I have more faith now than ever. Now that I’m not only sober, but not suicidal, now I don’t leave anything to coincidence. I do think there is a plan. It’s not my plan, but it’s a plan. I think that it also helped me get to the point where I’m not suicidal. I do.
Des: Do you still go to meetings?
Diana: Yes. That’s one thing that I don’t know if I ever will not. Some people are able to let go of it. I have two feelings about it. Not only that I need to go and be reminded of where I was—because every once in a while, I have crazy thoughts. I’ll be like, “I wonder what it’d be like to have one drink.”What would that do for me? No clue. But it just comes. I call them “squirrely thoughts.” Now, when I go to a meeting, sometimes I’ll see somebody who’s still suffering. I just remember that suffering. It kills me. I want to give back, too. Because it was given to me, and it helped me so much, I also want to give back.
Yeah, I think I’m going to be going to meetings all my life.
Des: What year were you put on medication? It sounded like it was in the ‘80s.
Diana: It was in the ‘80s. I’d say it was probably ’86. I’d been out of high school for a couple years, and that’s when I started. Prozac got really super popular after I had been on medications a couple years, probably in the ‘90s. I thought for sure that was going to save my life. It ended up not working for me, because I also have a little bit of anxiety with my depression, so it just made me jittery. I wasn’t able to [use it], and I was so disappointed because they had made such a big deal about it…
I guess it runs in the family too, because I’ve had a couple family members suffer from depression, and they were able to use the same medication, and it helps. I guess I do think that medication has a place for depression. I don’t know for suicidality, but for depression—at least, in my life—it has helped. It kind of helps me, puts me at a level where I can just function day-to-day.
Des: What do you think—because you did get caught up in that Prozac craze—what do you think about the way that we market these medications?
Diana: Oh, I’m still so sad for people who are struggling and are looking for something, because you get that hope. I think that we’re given false hope by the way they market. I guess it can depend on the doctors, too, but at least what you hear on commercials, it just seems like they think they have it all figured out. I don’t know, I guess it’s more complex than that. I know that being suicidal is.
I think with me, because I’ve thought about it, I think it could’ve been situational. A lot of things were happening. It could’ve been from family of origin—I had a lot of trauma in my youth—and then physical, too, because the antidepressants have helped.
I think if they were to have explained that more, they’d say, “This is something that we’re going to also try. It’s going to be a collaborative effort. We recommend therapy. Talk therapy. Hopefully one of the evidence-based therapies. Medication may help, but maybe giving it even a lesser of a value than the others.” I felt like I was almost promised that the medication was going to save me and help me not feel that way. That wasn’t the case. Even when I was on medication feeling better, I was still suicidal.
I think it’s false advertising. I’ve heard some people say that, even without medication, they’ve been able to feel better.
Des: Yeah. The medication commercials make me want to jump through my TV and strangle people. I think they should be illegal.
Diana: I agree. They make promises. When you’re in that much pain and that much suffering, you’re kind of grasping for anything. So that is harmful, I think.
Des: I feel like the goal should be to know your body and to know when it’s time to amp up the help-seeking behaviors. I’ve had really bad experiences with medication; now I’m on a medication that really helps me. It gives me a normal range of emotions. But that can’t be the only thing.
Diana: No. I don’t think so. And what I know of the hospitals, they tend to overmedicate. That’s really sad, because I’ve seen people who I know can barely hold onto things, who have the shakes, or they seem very, very drugged. How’s that any kind of a life? How can anyone have a life worth living if you’re in that state? I think medication for depression and suicidality is overused.
Des: Talk to me more about the hospitals and losing your time.
Diana: Hospitals were my worst experience.
I was put in one hospital here in the state of Washington, where I was in a room with two other women. Of course, all of us had our issues and it was unsupervised, pretty much. The two women got in a relationship, which I felt was coerced by one, because the one woman was in her thirties and the other was like eighteen or nineteen. I just felt like I had already been going through my own stuff, and then to have to experience that… I felt like it was happening to me, almost being abused again. So I was just like, “Really? I’m only in here for more trauma?”
One woman attempted to take her life, too, while we were there. We got pretty close, actually. I was actually surprised.
Just a lot of trauma in the hospitals. I know that they can’t be there every minute of the time, but I think they could at least have some kind of situation where they’re around more often or even talk to us more. But since we have our own community, I think they depend on us regulating it ourselves more. At least me, when I’m in that state, I’m not in any kind of a place where I can help anybody else, or have any help from another person who isn’t a professional.
So, everything’s taken from me. I’m given the medications. I remember asking for a medication for sleep, because I had been on Ambien for a long time. They had to talk to the doctors. It was the weekend when they don’t really see the doctor, so you have to wait a couple of days. It’s just all so planned and as a person, you have no control.
The other thing I didn’t like about hospitals is that I had no contact with my family or any of my loved ones. When I got back out, they were left probably in the same state that they were when I went in, which was shock and disbelief, or whatever else comes when a family member is trying to take their life. And I was in the same state, because nothing had been changed at the hospital.
That’s another thing that I would recommend for hospitals—to integrate your life outside the hospital with what you’re learning or going through inside. When those two worlds aren’t the same, and you go back out… I understand now why people can take their life after being in a hospital, because of that experience. Sometimes, it’s your last hope, and then you go and you experience that. Then you feel like there’s no hope for you at all…
I see it as one of the most broken of all of the systems. And yet, [hospitalization is] something that’s used a lot. As soon as you’re suicidal, in some states, it’s mandatory. In others, they suggest it strongly. Each time that I attempted, I was hospitalized. They could benefit from a lot of improvement.
Des: What about when you don’t have access?
Diana: To the hospital?
Des: To any of it. To medication, to therapy, to the hospital? Finding beds anywhere is difficult.
Diana: Nowadays, it really is. If you haven’t had therapy, I think it would be more difficult. Probably I’d recommend definitely talking about it. Whether that’d be with a trusted friend, or a family member that you feel close enough to, where you can let them know exactly what you’re feeling, but they’re not going to be so scared that they’re not going to be able to handle it themselves. That would be my recommendation, if you didn’t have any access.
But me, I had to have that therapy. Now, when I don’t have access to anything, I still have the tools that I learned. It sounds so simplistic, but the distraction box in DBT—they call it the distress tolerance box. When you’re suffering the worst at your crisis, it has things in there that you don’t usually look at, but mean a lot to you, things that could bring you into a different state. I still use that all the time. I have things in there, like pictures of my dogs. Something for each sense: something I could eat that I like; something that smells wonderful; music that I love; maybe a movie. I love comedy, anyway, so it always makes me laugh. Things that can alter my mood, even if it’s just for a little bit, because it shows me that my moods can change, and that things will be different. Whether they’re better or not, they’ll be different soon. It’s really beneficial to me, my skill.
Right now, I feel like even without access to therapy—I haven’t been going to therapy anymore—I just feel like I’m in a better place.
Des: What does it feel like to have a community?
Diana: I love it. I didn’t think, after I left my religion, that I would have one again. I don’t know how that came about. I had never made friends without my religion, because they teach you not to be friends with anybody but that religion.
I was afraid of people. I always thought everybody was evil, and how could I have any good friends? But now, not only do I have my AA community, my 12-step community, but I’m able to make friends anywhere, because I love people. Now that I’m getting into suicide prevention, even that has a community, and it feels so strongly like family. It surprises me still. I tell my mentor that I can’t believe I feel like I love these people already. I didn’t really understand it at first, and she said, “We are like family, because we all are in it for the same reasons. We want to save a life. What would bring a person closer to another human being than that?”
…I think that that’s important to still let people know that they’re not alone, and that you can be in that despair. I think it’s also important that you don’t try to make them happy right away. I think that that was the case with my family, moreso than the medical staff. I think that they were always hoping that they could heal me or make me happy enough to not want to feel that way. But I think it’s important to acknowledge the pain that’s there. Some people call it a pity party or whatever, but I don’t really feel that way. I think that some of the things that you go through in life are worth tears. You kind of earn those tears, and life sucks sometimes. It really does. I think it’s okay to admit that. And still, in the dialectical sense, it’s still worth living. If we can help people feel that way, I think it’ll help.
Des: I never did DBT.
Diana: Oh, wow. I loved it. I didn’t love it when I was going through it. When I was going through it, every single day I cursed it. I just thought “There’s no way.” I had suffered from depression then about fifteen years. So, when they said I was going to get up every day, and that at one point I wasn’t going to go to therapy, I was like, “Yeah, this isn’t gonna be the case.”
I had to break it down. In the mornings, I had to say, “Just open your eyes. Okay, just leave your eyes open. I’m not going to get up, I’m just going to leave my eyes open. Okay, now just sit on the side of the bed. I’m not going to get up. I’m just going to sit on the side of the bed. Now, put your feet down.” That’s how basic I had to go. But it worked. I get to the point where, now, I don’t even think about doing the opposite action, but that’s exactly what I’m doing to get going some days, and even in more difficult situations now. Now that I’m interacting with the world, there’s situations where I actually have to take action and be assertive, and it does not come naturally to me.
DBT is something I also really want to be an advocate for, because it helped me so much.
Diana: I do just want to say—I think I’ve said it somewhat—at least for me, a lot of things were involved with my being suicidal. It wasn’t just one thing or the other. It wasn’t just my mental illness. It wasn’t just the situation I was in. It was a lot of things involved. I think, a lot of times, a lot of loved ones, one of their questions is, “Why, why?” They want to blame or want to at least focus on one thing. I think that sometimes, one thing might push you over the edge, because you have so much underlying pressure and pain.
For me, that’s what I found. It was several things involved. It wasn’t just one that got me to that point each time. But I do believe in practicing the evidence-based therapy, and models like Zero Suicide. I can see a lot of times that I could’ve been caught before it got to that point. So I’m just hoping that that happens. I think the more we talk about it, the more it will.
That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.
Diana’s story is sponsored by a grant from the hope & grace fund, a project of New Venture Fund in partnership with global women’s skincare brand, philosophy, inc. Thanks also to Taryn Balchunas for providing the transcription to Diana’s interview, and to Sara Wilcox for editing.