Elizabeth Haleis a suicide attempt survivor.
"I survived a suicide attempt."
Elizabeth Hale is a member of the Centerstone crisis team, taking calls on their Triage Line. She was 33 years old when I interviewed her in Nashville, TN, on December 11, 2016.
My story starts around age ten. [That] was the first time I wanted to take my life.
My parents were divorced, and it was a terrible divorce. It happened when I was six months old, but they never got along after that. It created a lot of drama and tension in my life, and I think I was just generally a very unhappy child.
I didn’t really know how one goes about taking their own life at the age of ten. I mean, who would? I started cutting myself, and I did that for many years. I did that for a very long time, and probably a few years after that was the first time I tried by overdose. That was the main way I would do it. I don’t think I ever took anything that would be considered lethal. I just ended up sleeping or being sick, and no one ever knew that I was doing this.
Going to high school, [I was] still cutting. That was my primary thing. I think I was subconsciously hoping that one day I would just cut deep enough that I would die from that. I told a friend about the cutting, and they made fun of me for it, which just made it worse. They told other kids about it, which just made it worse. I already felt like an outsider where I lived in a little area outside of Nashville, a little redneck community. I never felt like the rest of them because I’m gay. I’ve never felt normal—you’ve heard all the jokes, the cruel jokes that people make about that. That just made the cutting worse, and every night I would take a bunch of aspirin, hoping that would do something. It never did.
Sophomore year, I stopped hiding the scars. A teacher noticed them and had the guidance counselor get involved, which got my mom involved in it. It ultimately led to me going to therapy. I didn’t trust the therapist, so that didn’t help anything. I say I played her like a fiddle because I made her think everything was okay and it wasn’t—I was still cutting myself. I was still wanting to die every day. It went on that way for a while. I didn’t get any help. I never really did anything serious past trying to overdose.
Things went back and forth between being a little better and not… and we get to 2012. I was still cutting myself on a weekly basis. Things got really bad in 2012. I was back living in Nashville. I had gone away for college and lived down where I went for college, in Pulaski. I didn’t have any friends up here at that time. I wasn’t that close with my family, and things were getting really bad at the place I was working.
One night in October of 2012, I drove out to [a nearby bridge]. It’s a fairly tall bridge, and my plan was that I was going to jump off of it. I walked out to the middle of the bridge, and I stood there for a long time. I got up on the ledge, and for whatever reason, after several minutes of just standing there, I got off. Something just snapped in me that there’s got to be a way to something different from this.
I was still struggling with the thoughts. I still do. It’s still a struggle, but I have better coping skills now than I did then, so I use those.
So, the first time in all my years, I finally got some real help. I got some real therapy that I didn’t manipulate. It really helped for the first time in years. I was twenty-nine or thirty then. But I was still cutting; I was still struggling with the thoughts. I still do. It’s still a struggle, but I have better coping skills now than I did then, so I use those. I have friends who I can talk about it with who know about the past.
In April of 2015, I was still doing the cutting. I had a friend who was worried that I would one day—like I always subconsciously thought—eventually cut deep enough that it would be what would do it. She told me she wanted me to stop cutting. Not for anyone else, but for myself, because I deserved better than that.
This past April made one year that I haven’t done that. I still haven’t done that. There’s been struggles with that. There’s been times I have been in a ball on the floor crying because I want to do that so bad. That was my go-to method for so long. I keep pills out of my house just because, for so long, I tried constantly with overdosing. Even though it didn’t do anything, I still keep them out, and I’m very hesitant to take any sedative type things.
I feel like I told that really fast.
Des: It’s totally fine. You’re not done yet. That’s just the jumping off point right? I want to know what led you to your work! How long have you been working at Centerstone?
Elizabeth: I’ve been with Centerstone for almost ten years. I’ve been in different departments. I started out as a case manager, and I moved to working in therapy—the older adult program.
The week after I was going to jump off the bridge, I got an email offering me an interview for the crisis line. I went to it, and I remember thinking, “How can I help anybody who is suicidal when I can’t even help myself right now?”
The same friend who wanted me to stop the cutting said, “You’re human, just like they are. Just because you work in this field doesn’t mean you’re immune to depression and the thoughts of wanting to take your life. You’re going to understand where they come from more than people who have never had a worry in their life.”
I went to the interview and got offered the position. It was part-time. Almost a year to the day that I was going to jump, they offered me full-time. I’ve been full-time with them for the last four years.
I guess what brought me into that was my dad. My dad lives with mixed bipolar. He’s been in and out of psych hospitals as long as I can remember. He attempted suicide several times. I never understood the bipolar. He would go from these extreme highs and lows—from being depressed and into a rage of tearing the house up.
All anyone would tell me was, “It’s his illness.”
I’m like, “That doesn’t tell me a damn thing. I want to understand this.”
That’s how I started studying psychology in college, then I just went into it. I stay with what I do now because I understand when people call and they have no hope. I’ve been there. I’ll probably always do this in some form, even if I go on to do other things. I will always at least work part-time on that crisis line.
Des: I don’t think I realized they had an NFL line. I mean, it’s not surprising, but I don’t think I realized that it existed.
Elizabeth: NFL has their whole line. The main place is up in New York somewhere, and we’re their backup. We’re contracting a lot of people. We also are contracted with Dawson McAllister, which I’d never heard of… it’s a radio show. We get a lot of teenagers on that line. A lot of very young people.
Des: I’m guessing you’re out about your lived experience at work.
Elizabeth: I am now. I wasn’t before. No one knew about it for quite some time. We were at a training a couple of years ago where I saw Samantha Nadler. She spoke her experience and she worked in the same field doing the same kind of things. [I remember thinking], “If she can speak of her experience and be okay, then I can too.” I would share it when the time came. We had a supervision where I work now where we shared our experiences if we wanted to. That was the first time I had shared it with anybody outside of the closest people.
Des: Tell me more about your family.
Elizabeth: My parents are divorced. I live with my mom. It was just me and my mom all my life. I love my mom, but that was rough at times because she was a single mom. It just made things hard. My dad got remarried when I was two and started a new family. I’ve got three sisters from that side, and I think I always felt like I was abandoned by him, even though divorce happens. I just always felt abandoned because my sisters got to have him all the time, and I got him two weekends a month—and that’s if he wasn’t in an episode, as my stepmother always called them. When those would happen, I wouldn’t see him, and I didn’t understand it. I didn’t always have a great relationship with my stepmother… things have improved the past couple years. It was kind of volatile when I was younger, which I think made it play more into the depression and the wanting to just be dead.
Des: You talked about not understanding your dad’s bipolar diagnosis. Do you have your own beautiful diagnosis? Do you really care about a diagnosis?
Elizabeth: I do. I’ve been diagnosed with bipolar also. I don’t usually tell people that because I’m not a labels person. I’m very anti-label. I went through a lot of that when I was coming out, which didn’t happen until I was thirty.
Des: So, no, then!
Elizabeth: I think I take this stance of why do we have to be one thing or another? Why can’t we just be people? I have an armband that says, “No labels, just people.” I usually don’t tell people that I have that diagnosis, just because I don’t want to bea diagnosis.
It crawls up my skin when people say “I am bipolar,” or “I am schizophrenic.”
I’m like, “No, you have it. You don’t go around saying, “I am the flu,” or, “I am bronchitis.” You have it… don’t make it your identity.”
So, I usually don’t share that with people.
Des: I like to ask that question because I think diagnoses can guide us and help us understand things, but sometimes people get so stuck on it and [it can be] used against them like a weapon.
Elizabeth: I always saw it used against my dad so much. My mother would use that against me. If I had too much of one emotion or the other, I was being like my dad, and that was bad because he’s got this bipolar. I’m like, “No, my emotion has nothing to do with anybody else.” I think I just couldn’t have my own emotions without it being a negative thing, which is probably why I didn’t ever let anyone actually help me. Especially that one therapist when I was in high school. I’m like, “Uh, no. You’re like everyone else, and I’m not going to tell you what’s real because you’re not going to help me.”
Des: What about therapy now?
Elizabeth: I’m not in therapy anymore. I was. I could always go back if I want to. That was where I started to really be able to express myself, to know that it’s okay to have these emotions and not give a shit what anyone thinks, basically. She was really amazing. She was in Murfreesboro. She helped me develop better coping skills. I have a handful of people now who, when I start to feel those ways, I can call and I can talk to.
I want to believe that I’ll never feel those feelings again, but I know they’ll come. I’ve made a promise to myself that I will reach out to someone, anyone.
Des: Tell me the answer to the question you probably know I was going to ask: is suicide still an option for you?
Elizabeth: Not today. I want to believe that I’ll never feel those feelings again, but I know they’ll come. I’ve made a promise to myself that I will reach out to someone, anyone. I used to be that person who would say, if someone [asked me], “Who would you reach out to if you had those thoughts?” I would tell you, “Not a damn soul.” There’s so much stigma attached to it, and I used to always be terrified of anybody knowing I had those thoughts in the job that I worked in. Just in mental health, in general, not even just the suicide line.
Now that I’ve seen other people be able to be open about it, I know that I can have people who I can be open with about it. I know that I can reach out for help. I’ve got a wonderful supervisor now who I know I can go and talk to. If I needed to be off of work, she would get help for me. I could do that and my job would still be waiting for me when I came back.
Are the thoughts gonna still be there? Yeah. But will I ever be standing on that bridge again? No. Will I contemplate it? Yes. But I will never be on it again.
Des: Tell me what, if anything… what good has come from your experiences of being suicidal?
Elizabeth: Being able to talk to other people about it. Being able to share with people.
I’m very careful with what I share with people on the line because I don’t want to say too much. Being able to help them see that there is light and things can get better. Yeah, they’re crappy right now. They’re not gonna be better tomorrow… probably not then, or the next day. But there is reason to keep holding on. There are people who do care about them. Even if it is just a stranger on the phone, there’s somebody who does care about you. I tell that to anybody who calls and says that no one cares. I’m like, “Well, I care. I may only know your name is Jeff, but I care about you because you’re another human being.” That’s really helped a lot of people.
I don’t know that I would have the same compassion for people who have these thoughts had I not been at the end of that line myself. I’m not saying you can’t… it’s just a different perspective when you’ve truly been there.
Des: Did you see the new suicide rates got released for 2015 the other day?
Elizabeth: I saw the 2014 rates. I think that was just for Tennessee that I saw. I didn’t see the national ones.
Des: The Tennessee ones went up to nine hundred and seventy-four last year, I think they said. Now it’s up to eleven hundred.
Elizabeth: They were within just less than one hundred of the car accident rate. It was mind-blowing how high it was in just Tennessee, and that Tennessee had a higher rate than states that have populations four or five times what we have.
Des: I think the national rate went up to forty-four thousand, so it’s just constant. Do you feel like there’s anything uniquely challenging about living in Tennessee, or being in Tennessee, that contributes to suicidality or the kind of people who are affected by it?
Elizabeth: I see it so much with people who call the line and don’t believe in mental health, so they don’t believe in getting help. I think a lot of the south is that way, so Tennessee just falls right into it. People just don’t believe in getting help. Tennessee is also kind of a conservative state, in general. Nashville itself is not so much conservative, but the state is. So, where you have conservative people, you have a lot of judgment, and people feeling like they’re not wanted or welcome. I think that leads to it for people.
Des: But then also, Tennessee seems to be kind of leading the charge in a lot of ways in suicide prevention stuff.
Elizabeth: Yes, they are. Hopefully that will help.
Des: Talk to me a little more about cutting and stopping kind of abruptly after twenty-one years.
Elizabeth: Yeah, twenty-one years. That was really hard. I started cutting when I was ten… The stopping abruptly thing was hard. I had tried for years. I would tell myself, “I’m gonna stop this.” It would never last. I think I never went longer than a month. It used to be on a weekly basis so I guess going a month was something. When I stopped abruptly, there would be times when I would be holding it in my hand, against my skin, wanting to [do it] so bad. But I had made that promise to my friend that I would not do that for myself.
I was still in therapy when I first stopped cutting. She had got me into journaling, which is something I had recommended to probably thousands of people, but never did myself. I go back and read what I wrote, and it’s just this rambling of all the pain that was inside of me. It really helped. I now, instead of cutting, will go and keep myself busy. I will do something. It’s still a struggle. Probably the bigger struggle, more than anything, is to not go back to doing that because it’s so easy to self-harm. You don’t need a lot to do that. I just take those days minute by minute.
Des: Do you keep any [sharps] in the house?
Elizabeth: No, I do not. I still have stuff that I could cut myself with that I haveinjured myself with, and when I see myself starting to get to those feelings, I will hide them and then I can’t find them. I will put those away somewhere, put them in a box on the highest shelf so I’ll have to get the ladder out. Or I’ll just get out of my house and go drive. Driving is a big coping skill for me. I’ll go drive for hours and hours, and that will help.
Driving is a big coping skill for me. I’ll go drive for hours and hours, and that will help.
Des: What else is in your coping arsenal?
Elizabeth: I will go and spend some time with friends. I have a friend who knows about the cutting; she knows about all of it. I’ll spend some time with her. We’ll go out to dinner, or I’ll just go over to her house and we’ll hang out, or sometimes we’ll just talk. I don’t think she realizes how much of a coping skill she’s been.
I’ll go hiking. I live by the Percy Priest Lake, so I’ll drive down there. There’s some trails that go back up on the sides of the lake. It’s really peaceful up there, so I can just have some time to meditate and release things without hurting my body to do it. It definitely exhausts you, climbing all those rocks.
Des: How important is lived experience to suicide prevention?
Elizabeth: I think it’s really important. If we don’t talk about our lived experience, we don’t know how to help the problem. Can’t talk about it, can’t fix it, so I think people sharing their lived experience helps. Me hearing Sam’s helped. That was the first time I thought, “It’s okay for me to have, in this mental health field, those thoughts, or even had an attempt.” I’ve only seen Sam one other time. I’ve never told her that, but I think hearing her experience was the first thing that gave me hope that it was okay that I had it too. I think that’s why it’s important.
Des: Have you ever known anybody who died by suicide?
Elizabeth: Yes. When I was a senior in high school. We had a boy in my grade who I was friends with who [died by] suicide. Four days before Thanksgiving. He’s never been far from my thoughts since then. There’s probably few days that go by that I haven’t thought about what was going on that was so bad at that time that he had to die.
That happened in 2001, so it’s been fifteen years. How different would life be fifteen years from now? Would those things that had him so upset at that given moment matter? Would he even remember them? He would have gone on and created a life, potentially had a spouse and children, traveled the world… and he missed out on all of those things. He was probably also one thing that’s kept me in this field. I never understood why. I guess that goes back to why it’s important to talk about the lived experience, to those who survive—to understand it.
Des: When you meet new people—friends, romantic, whatever—do you tell them? How do you feel about sharing that information?
Elizabeth: I have to get to know somebody pretty well first.
Des: You can’t just say, “What’s up? I tried to kill myself.”
Elizabeth: Yeah, once I get to know somebody. I don’t want to be one of those people who just tells you their whole life the first time they meet you. Unless it’s, of course, planned out, like today! Once I get to know people, it comes out. I always tell people what I do, so that kind of opens up an opportunity to see if they feel comfortable talking to me about anything. I kind of see where it goes from there.
Des: Talk about means restriction. I’m guessing when you were actually on the lines that probably came up a lot because it’s a high gun ownership state.
Elizabeth: Usually, with those, we have to bring somebody else in who’s in the house with them. I’m like, “Who’s in the house with you?”
They’ll be able to tell me, “My daughter,” or, “My wife.”
I’ll be like, “Well, do they know what’s going on? Would you feel comfortable with me talking to them?” I’ve been able to tell them what’s going on, and I’ve had people agree to lock up medicines, or lock up guns.
I’ve had people be like, “I’m not locking up my guns!”
I’m like, “Okay…”In those situations, that’s where I tell people, “Instead of picking up that gun, I want you to pick up that phone and call us back.”
Sometimes we’re able to get people to restrict means. Sometimes we’re not. Some of those cases, we have to involve the police because they’re not going to put away the means, and they’re not gonna agree with safety. We have to involve the police in those situations. We get more calls like that out of East Tennessee than anywhere.
Des: How do you feel about gun control? Do you think it’s realistic? What do you think about the gun lock sort of things with suicide prevention? Are they doing that here?
Elizabeth: I don’t think they’re doing it here. I guess I haven’t worked with that enough. I would like to think that gun control would change things, but what do you do about the guns that are already out there? In a place like Tennessee, people just have guns all the time. I grew up around guns. Part of my family are hunters.
I would like to see it happen. Do I think it’s realistic? Probably not. There’s probably too many gun enthusiasts for it to change. I think that’s where education and people telling their stories has to come in. People knowing it’s okay to get help. I think that’s what’s going to have to be the primary thing—more than gun control—showing the world that, if you feel these thoughts, it’s okay.
Until I was hearing the same story, I never knew it was okay to be in this field and have those thoughts. No matter what field you’re in, you should be able to know that it’s okay to reach out for help. We’re all human, we are all going to have those thoughts.
The main reason I never said anything was because I thought, “I’ll lose my job, because nobody’s going to want to employ somebody who wanted to kill themselves.” Then I wanted to be dead even more. Until I was hearing the same story, I never knew it was okay to be in this field and have those thoughts. No matter what field you’re in, you should be able to know that it’s okay to reach out for help. We’re all human, we are all going to have those thoughts. I think that’s going to be the way of fighting suicide, rather than taking the guns away.
Elizabeth’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 Jess Lange for providing the transcription to Elizabeth’s interview, and to Sara Wilcox for editing.