Holly Reeseris a suicide attempt survivor.
"I survived a suicide attempt."
Holly Reeser is a high school science teacher. She was 52 years old when I interviewed her in Orlando, FL, on November 22, 2014.
CONTENT WARNING: discussion of race and graphic discussion of suicide methods
On November 10, 2010, my best friend passed suddenly from an aneurysm. Best friend as in sister, soul-mate, from the time we were sixteen. Nobody closer. I don’t even think sisters could have been closer than me and Michelle.
[I lost my mom, too.] Contrary to the doctor’s diagnosis of, “Oh, your mom has months to live! Plan the holidays. Plan Thanksgiving. Buy your plane tickets now,” she passed nine days later.
In my world, I’ve lived alone, I’m not married, I have no kids, and I’ve been moving around since I was eighteen years old. I’ve lived in five or six different states now. I have friends in each state, but my two rocks, my two foundations, were Michelle and Mom. If I needed, it was Michelle and Mom. They were always there for me. They always supported me, they were true to me, they called me on my bullshit. Michelle would be like, “You are so full of shit. Would you please stop!” Which I would do to her, of course, as well.
I was living on the Navajo reservation in Ramah, New Mexico, which is extremely isolated. The other problem was that it was predominantly Mormon. I was one of four staff members at the high school that wasn’t Mormon—although the entire population of the school, other than ten students, were Navajo and Zuni. We were isolated an hour from any town. I made friends with two of the other non-Mormon teachers. Somehow they decided they were going to fall in love and go get married! When that happened and she went on to University of Wisconsin, that left me there alone.
I did get addicted to Lorazepam to try to deal with the anxiety and depression. And Prozac. I think I was way over-medicated. I don’t think my psychiatrist knew what the hell he was doing.
My first cue was when I had a seizure in the office at the school. I woke up on the floor twenty minutes later with my principal going, “Holly. Holly. Holly.” And the EMTs going, “Five more minutes and you might not have woken up.” Because the hospital was an hour away, it was like touch and go. They couldn’t get an IV. It was like a near [death experience]. I kind of flat-lined blood pressure. It was a rough time and things just kind of deteriorated after that.
I felt like I needed to go somewhere else, get somewhere else, move away. I’m not exactly sure what I thought New Orleans was going to do for me, other than be something completely bizarre and unexpected, and maybe that would be [enough].
New Orleans was the seventh level of Hell. There’s nothing about New Orleans that’s true that you see on any commercial or show on the Travel Channel. That’s Bourbon Street. That’s the French Quarter. One block off the French Quarter, you’re in the Ninth Ward and you’re in the war zone.
I was employed in the second worst high school in New Orleans. We had a student who actually stole a teacher’s purse, took her keys, emptied her bank account, and burned her house down because she gave him an F.
Ninety-nine percent of the students had ankle monitors and were heavily gang involved. The other thing that happened in New Orleans, which I’ve never experienced even before coming south, was that they didn’t want me there because I was white. They did not want a white teacher in their school. Period. The district put me there because they needed a teacher. The administration went out of their way to turn it into a very hostile work environment—as in harassing me, harassing my students, coming in and disrupting my class. So, because I thought my certification had been approved for biology in state of Louisiana, which turned out not to be true, I went ahead and resigned. I’m like, “I can find another job. I’m a teacher.” Turned out, I couldn’t because they screwed up my certification. Time ticked by. Tick, tick, tick. Money ran out. This happened in October.
I would spent every day in the coffee shop down the street because they had free WiFi. Of course everything was shut off because I couldn’t pay for it. I would go down there every day and fill out application after application. They got to the point where they gave me free coffee because they realized what was going on.
I actually went on an interview for a middle school and she said, “I want to hire you right now, but I can’t.”
I said, “Why not?”
She said, “Because you’re white. And the black parents won’t accept you. They’ll demand that I don’t hire you.” She said that’s the way it would be in New Orleans.
By that time, I was trapped. I’d been in contact with the people I owed car payments to, and they were being amazing about it. They said, “Just keep us posted on what’s going on,” because it was almost paid off. I know they didn’t want to just repossess it with four months to go.
It got worse and my friends started pulling away. My friends said, “I can’t handle this.” My boyfriend, who I’d left in Wisconsin, said, “I can’t handle this.” My brother, when I said, “I’m going to need a place to live. I’m a week from being homeless,” said, “Well, you can’t live here.”
At that point, I had been working with a couple of social workers and they said, “We have waiting lists that are up to a year long. Eighty percent of our homeless population is severely mentally ill and unmedicated. You will not, probably, survive the week in the Salvation Army shelter. Your car will be gone on the first day.” They gave me a map and said, “These are the Anglo neighborhoods where there’s a constant police presence. You might want to find a place to park and sleep there. You will be okay. You’ll be safe.”
So, this all goes down. I get home from one of my sessions of filling out applications and the eviction notice is on the door. There’s nothing I can do about it.
I have no memory at that point until I’m in the bathtub, with the water running, with cut marks down my arms. I get out of the bathtub. I look around the apartment and it looked like there was some kind of an assault. There was blood everywhere. It was on the walls, it was in the kitchen, it was soaked into the carpet. I have no idea. I have noidea. I picked up the phone and I called 911. I passed out and when I woke up I was on the gurney.
The paramedic said, “Girl, you had three minutes. If we had not been at Tulane Hospital and were available to come right away… you had three minutes. You would have bled out.”
He starts asking me questions and I said, “I don’t remember anything.”
He says, “Do you know what day it is?”
I said, “Friday.”
He says “No, this is late Saturday afternoon.” No memory at all. Nothing in there other than waking up in the bathtub. He’s like, “What are you on?”
I’m like, “Nothing. I haven’t been able to have any medication because I don’t have any insurance.”
He goes, “Nobody cuts themselves to the bone, through arteries. [Somebody] who is not in some way medicated or loaded down with painkillers and alcohol.” He says, “Do you know what you told me when I first woke you up?”
I said, “No.”
He said, “You told me that you knew how to do it right because you were a science teacher.” Okay. Awesome.
They get me to the hospital. They keep taking blood and keep taking blood and it’s like, “What are you doing?” They finally go into the femoral vein and I’m like, “Really?”
They’re like, “All your blood tests are coming back negative.”
I said, “That’s because I don’t have anything in my system.”
They said, “Well, you have to have something in your system.”
I was like, “I really don’t. I’m serious that I really don’t. Did you find any medication in my apartment? Did you find any alcohol in my apartment? Hell, did you find food in my apartment? That’d be a no.”
They just couldn’t believe it. At that point, then, they stitched everything up. They put me in—it’s called Jackson Hole—which is the holding tank and a scary fucking place. There’s no wall, there are no doors, there are just walls between each of the cells. Those people in there are truly crazy, marching up and down, screaming in Swahili or something, thrusting an imaginary spear in the air. There’s another dude over there talking about how it’s all a conspiracy and the aliens are coming to get us all.
The psychiatrist keeps coming in, saying, “Are you gonna finally tell me the truth? Are you ready to tell me the truth?” It’s like harassment every day, every day, every day.
I said, “Look, you know what? Find me a placement or let me go. Put me into a placement where you can monitor me to make sure I’m not going to just walk right out there and do it again, but there’s nothing else to say. I don’t know anything else. I don’t remember anything.”
He said, “That’s not possible.” Arrrgh!
I was like, “Okay. Do you want me to make shit up? Because I can make a good story up.”
He’s like, “No, we want the truth.”
I said, “Well, you’ve got the truth.”
They put me in—which was pathetic—because of my age, I was right on the borderline between senior and non-senior, so they put me in a senior citizens psychiatric facility. Those people were mostly dementia, living out the last days of their lives. It was the hellhole everybody expects the hellhole to be. The food that you don’t want to eat. Medication, if you’re lucky. I had to continuously bitch until they would change the bandages on my wrists because they started smelling bad. The snacks that were meant for the people were eaten by all the staff.
This is the weirdest part: the coroner comes in. I’m like, “Did you notice I’m not dead?”
He’s like, “No, the coroner has to rule whether or not you can be discharged.”
I’m like, “You do dead people. What about the psychiatrist who’s been talking to me every day?”
He said, “No, I’m the one who has to decide. And I think you’re full of lies.”
I was there for another week. They wouldn’t get me any clothes. All I had on was the pair of pants and shirt that were completely stained with blood. I had no underwear, no socks. It was freezing cold. I had no jacket. Nothing. I had nothing. I got through all that.
Finally, I convinced them [to let me leave]. The whole time, though, I was getting on the phone every chance I could. [I called] the car people because, out of all things, I realized the one thing I had to have when I left there was my car. Then I called the apartment complex and told them what was going on. They said, “Well, we’re not going to clear your apartment out yet.” I did get some kindness from them because they could have easily dumped my shit on the curb and had my car towed, but they didn’t.
I convinced them to let me go get the stuff that I could fit in my car, which was all I could get. Then I would decide. They said, “Well, you can check yourself back in or, if you can find someplace to go, then go.” I cleared my car out like fifteen minutes before the Sheriff arrived to escort me out.
I called my friend. I was like, “Hey. What’s up?”
He’s like, “What’s going on?” Like he already knew something was up.
I said, “Well, I’m officially homeless in New Orleans.”
He says, “No, you’re not.”
I’m like, “Yeah, I am.”
He’s like, “No. Go to Wal-Mart and wait. I’m going to Western Union four hundred dollars. Get in your car and drive up here to Madison. You’re going to move in with us until you get your shit together. No time limit. Don’t worry about the money, don’t worry about the food. Don’t worry about any of it. You need to get it together. You need to get everything together.”
So that’s what I did! I went up to Wisconsin. I slept on their couch, played with their dogs, and hung out with my friends. One day we were trying to figure out we were going to do because I was in no shape. I had these massive bandages on my arms and I was mentally not in any shape to go to work anywhere.
My friend was like, “What about your retirement?”
I’m like, “What retirement?”
He’s like, “You worked six years in New Mexico. You’re vested.”
I said, “I don’t know what that means.”
I’ve never worked jobs like that. I’ve always worked in factories or shit like that. Horse farms, shoveling shit. Anything that would pay me good under the table so I could go out and spend on drugs and alcohol.
He’s like, “Yeah! You can get your contribution back. That should be significant, being six years.”
I contacted them and [they said], “Oh, yeah. You’ve got twenty thousand dollars of your money.”
Really? Of course, at that moment, you start going, “What if I’d known that when I was in New Orleans?” But I realized that would not have been the answer to New Orleans. I would have wasted all that money in New Orleans. I realize now that was not the answer; I had to go to clarify my mind and have my friend for counsel.
It took four days for them to deposit that money into my bank account. The first thing I did was pay off my car. Numero uno, I paid my car off, because that was the lifeline, you know? Then my friend’s like, “Well, what do you want to do?”
This was now February in Wisconsin. One of those fronts rolled through with the forty-below wind chills. I said, “Yeah, no.” As much as I love Wisconsin, [as much as people wanted me to stay], I’m like, “Not unless the earth tilts on its axis in a way that this is now Florida.” I mean, I love Madison, it’s a beautiful city. I went to graduate school there. I loved it. It was fantastic, but I don’t do cold. It hits seventy degrees and I’ve got a jacket on. I’m a wuss.
I don’t know why Florida never came into my mind at the time. Why, at that point, didn’t I say, “I’ll just go back to Florida?” I didn’t because I’d been in New Mexico for six years. I liked Albuquerque a lot, so I went to Albuquerque. I found a furnished apartment, all inclusive. I lived there. I just healed. I started to do meditation, I started doing yoga, I was going to a massage therapist, I’d found a physician to help [with] chronic pain in my knees.
Unfortunately, Albuquerque is kinda like Madison in that it has a major university in the town that produces over seventy teachers every semester. It’s a flooded market. Even with my skills and my talent, and the fact that I’d been on the res and knew how to work with Native Americans, there weren’t any [opportunities]. I knew I did not want to go to a public school again. I was done. So, I took a job in Phoenix. Wow, that was a bad idea. One hundred and twenty degrees is not natural. Not natural at all. I lasted three months. I had a migraine for three months from the heat. I couldn’t handle it.
Then a job opened up at Rough Rock. I did not realize, at the time, how isolated it was. It was two hours away from anything. If there’s a fourth world, it was the fourth world. Let’s just screw third world—it was fourth world.
It was just awful. I felt myself slipping. The isolation. The depression. The poverty, the pain, the sorrow. I knew I had to get out of there. At that point in time I was like, “You know what? I’m going back to Florida. This is not working. I’ve got to go home.” I wanted to go home. I just started thinking, “I want to go home!” That’s how I ended up here in Tampa, because the job just opened up and I was like, “No! Really?”
I interviewed with the head of the school. We had an amazing conversation. I interviewed with the head of the board of directors. Three days after that interview, they offered me the job. It’s a private school that works with kids with ADHD, bipolar, manic depression, anxiety—all issues that I’m so very familiar with. Many of those kids, if [they have] not actually attempted, have come very close to attempting suicide from depression issues and stuff.
It’s interesting that, little by little, some of them are starting to notice the scars on my wrists. Normally, they would say, “Oh, you had carpal tunnel.”
And I’m like, “Yeah… I’m on the computer all the time.”
It’s not something you bust out to your students. There is one girl I have talked to about it because she came to tell me she was having urges. I talked to her and went to the counselor. She had seen them and she says, “I know what those are.”
That’s where I’m at now. I have a fantastic apartment, six hundred and fifty dollars a month, everything inclusive, internet, all the cable you could ever want. It’s perfection. The insurance rolled in. I now have a psychiatrist. I see my therapist for our first real session on Wednesday—she specializes in anxiety, suicide, and post-traumatic stress disorder, which I have. I was violently raped when I was fourteen. As in, “Mom, I fell off a horse and I started my period.” Violently raped by my boyfriend. That’s where the PTSD comes from.
I’m really happy. I’ve got a doctor now who is taking good care of me. I’ve got my Lexapro. My moods are stabilized. I feel like I finally have a fresh start. I feel like I have everything in place. I love Tampa. I’ve made a really good friend at work. It’s good. It’s probably the best I’ve been in a long, long time.
The woman who does the therapy doesn’t do cognitive behavioral therapy. She does a different kind where you don’t relive the event. I wish I could remember what it was called. It’s what drew me to her because I don’t do well in cognitive behavioral therapy. I mean, I can’t. I’ve told her that I don’t remember. I really need to remember. I mean, I feel like I do. I feel like there’s a reason I don’t, but I feel like now it’s time that I do. She’s like, “We will get to it. You will not have to relive it. It will not be pain again.”
I’ve got a psychiatrist now and we’re going to talk about putting me on something to deal with the chronic anxiety. I do realize that part of the chronic anxiety is because I’m still waiting for the other shoe to drop. In the past years since Mom and Michelle passed, every time I thought I had a plan, it was going to work out, and everything was falling into place, the other shoe dropped. Lost my job. My friends backed away. I was homeless. Every time something happened, something right behind it was doubly traumatic and would literally knock me off my feet again.
I’ve been in Tampa since June, and I do realize I’m still going through it. Even though I am, my boss just told me yesterday, “I want you working here for as long as you want to work here. I don’t ever want you to leave. You have a home here until you retire.”
A normal person would be like, “Rock on!”
But me, I go home and I’m like, “Well, what did he really mean by that? And what are all the things that could happen now that might change that?”
Then the anxiety starts, which has totally affected my diet. I have a gastric bypass. I have a full on bypass. I used to be twice this big, so I had a full on bypass where they stapled the stomach up. When I get like that, I can’t eat. I’ll go days without eating, which of course means that I’m very deficient in all kinds of vitamins and minerals. I’m going to start juicing again.
My friends tell me, “Do you realize how strong you are? Do you realize that anybody else would have just literally just crumbled under the pressure? If they hadn’t done it the first time, they would have made sure they did it the second time.” And the fact that at home I have [pills] I could so easily pop. I have everything I need, other than a bottle of liquor to wash it all down with. [My friends] say, “Do you realize that all that stuff is in your house and you’re not abusing it?”
I think to myself, “No, I don’t know if I do.” You know? I feel like it’s just a survival skill, as opposed to a conscious effort to survive, if you know what I mean. It’s more along the lines of belligerent will, as opposed to having a reason for being here.
I’m here for these kids. These kids need me. I have more to give. I have a life. I’m going to get my motorcycle license back so I can start renting Harleys from the Harley shop so I can start riding again.
I have these plans, but every time I get ready to do something—like even coming here today—I sat in my house from four o’clock this morning with my phone in my hand and your number there. I finally texted my friend, told her what was going on, and she said, “Don’t you dare! You are doing something that is worthwhile, something that needs to be done.”
Because I believe what you say. The stigma is horrific. The stigma is what prevents people from [speaking out]. I deal with it because I’m a teacher. Let’s just say some ignorant, completely unenlightened parent sees me on your website for whatever reason and says, “Oh, that’s my student’s science teacher! Well, she’s mentally unbalanced.” I mean, [my boss] has already said he’ll support me, that that’s not going to happen, but it would be a fight. It would be a fight because they [would say], “I can’t have my kid there. You have somebody there who’s tried to kill themselves.”
So, it means a lot to me to come and [do this]. I think a lot of it is because, as a teacher, we’re held to such a higher standard of behavior. Of morality. Of not being human. Of not having vices and weaknesses.
I think that’s what therapy’s going to have to do for me. Get me to stop waiting for that other shoe to drop.
Does this sound weird because I’m not afraid to die? It’s like, I have no fear of it. The more I say that, people are like, “Oh, you’re suicidal!” No, I’m not suicidal. I’m just saying that if didn’t wake up tomorrow, I’m okay with it. Is that odd?
Holly: Okay, because I don’t even know how to explain. People just freak out. They’re like, “Oh, Holly are you going to try again? You gonna try again?” No! I’m just saying that I feel at peace, you know? I feel okay.
Des: I wonder what they would say if you hadn’t attempted. Would it just be [viewed as] radical acceptance?
Holly: That’s a good point. I mean, if had never attempted. Now, they can’t hear it for what it is. Because that’s all it is. I’ve lived a hell of a life. I’ve taught in five states. I’ve been backstage with bands like Van Halen and the Rolling Stones. I partied. I was sex, drugs, and rock and roll. I was frickin’ Guns N’ Roses, Slash—you know what I mean. And I’m good. There’s some things I wish I could do, like meet Synyster Gates from Avenged Sevenfold. That’d be awesome.
I don’t feel like I have any unfinished business other than the kids who need me, which they do.
Des: I want to know more about how having the experiences you have influences your teaching. How far can you take those conversations with kids before you have to report them?
Holly: That’s an excellent question. There is a line that is written in law. I have a legitimate, legal precedent that mandates reporting, yes.
But there have been times, like when [a student] told me that she was feeling some urges. I think, because I’m empathic, I was able to read off her that she was not about to grab a knife or grab a revolver. She’d just broken up with her boyfriend over another girl and it was more of a depressive “I just lost my boyfriend” thing.
It is a very fine line, it’s a very blurred line. It’s a very dangerous line.
[A student] came to me and said, “I think [George] is suicidal.”
I said, “What makes you think that George is suicidal?”
He said, “He asked me if I could find him a gun.”
I said, “At this point, you do now realize that this conversation goes to the head of the school and the school therapist. I cannot stop this conversation here. Because if George kills himself and you say, “But I told Miss Reeser,” no, no, no. That is the death knell because, “Why didn’t you do anything? Why didn’t you say anything?”” There’s a huge, solid line, but it becomes so blurred.
The other day, because this happened, [the same student] came to me and said, “What do you know about Spice?” Because [a family member] had three strokes because of smoking Spice, I knew an enormous amount.
Des: I don’t know what Spice is.
Holly: Spice is like a dirt weed that they have sprayed super concentrated THC on. It causes seizures, it causes strokes, it causes death, it causes cardiac arrest. My family member had three strokes, and he now has huge memory gaps where he does not remember the birth of his son. He is now totally night blind.
So I said, “I’m going to tell you what happened to someone in my family, and this is what Spice is,” because I am a science teacher. I said, “This is what Spice is, this is what it does, and it basically almost devastated this person’s family.”
It’s hard for me, because I know where it’s going, but I also don’t want to betray their trust so they don’t come to me and [ask these questions]. As a scientist and as somebody very familiar with drugs and alcohol and that lifestyle, I can say to them, “Oh, this is what’s going to happen! I can promise you this is what is going to happen, because it happened to me or my friends.” I told him, “Do you realize that, since the time I graduated high school, over twenty of my friends are dead? They’re dead. Overdose, driving under the influence, suicide… there’s at least twenty more who are in prison for drugs.” These aren’t the freshmen, these are my seniors. I said, “You are literally months away from the end of the road.”
It’s hard for me because I know I have saved kids on the res. I have stopped kids from getting pregnant, I have made sure kids have gone to college and graduated, but I’ve had to share parts of my life that any article you read on teacher professional behavior tells you to never share, ever. You are not allowed to talk about that stuff. But it was doing that that allowed me to reach the student to stop them. I’ve gotten cards from students that have literally said, “Thank you for not sugar-coating the bullshit of real life and telling me exactly how it’s going to turn out if I do this.”
I am the individual in front of [the student] who they respect, they admire, and they love to death. They enjoy being with me and I can have an impact. A lot of these kids go to see therapists who they hate. They don’t want to talk to them, they can’t stand them, they don’t tell them anything but bullshit, but they’ll tell me the truth. It’s tough.
[My friend] said, “You do know you’re putting your job at risk.” I have for the past twelve years. I have put my job at risk. And I know I have stopped people from doing things. Is it worth it to continue? I think so. I can’t come up with a reason that’s valid for not doing it.
Des: Do you still have suicidal thoughts? And if so, how do you handle that?
Holly: No. That was the first question my therapist asked me when I saw her for the first time. I thought for a minute and I’m like, “No!” Even though I’m still waiting for the other shoe to drop, it hasn’t dropped. I’m happy, I have a life, I look good. I’m wearing makeup again, I got my hair done again, I’m about to get magentas and purples and blues put in my hair. I got my nails again. I just ordered three more shirts. I’m about to order a pair of Harley Davidson riding boots. No, I’m investing a lot of money in being alive. I love my kids and I love my job and I love Tampa. So, no.
Do I get to the point where sometimes all I want to do is sleep? And will I take [meds] and knock myself out so I can just stop? My brain will go in this hyperactive, almost superhero-type anxiety mode, and there’s really nothing else I can do except knock myself out. [My therapist] says she can show me some kind of guided meditation that will help me stop doing that. Which, I’m hoping [will work]. But sometimes I will literally knock myself out with my sleeping pills and then, when I wake up, I’m fine. I’m a little bit addicted to Red Bull. A wee bit. And by “wee,” I mean four or five a day sometimes…
I can function just fine. Do I want to continue that behavior? No. Hence, therapist, psychiatrist. But have I actually said to myself, “I have the medication sitting at home right now that could drop me in a heartbeat?” Have I ever put that bottle in my hand, opened it up and said, “Let’s do this”? Oh, god, no. I’m too busy watching Ghost Adventures.
Des: This is the one question that I do ask everyone: is suicide still an option for you?
Holly: I think this is probably the most honest thing I could say—if something happened again, like it happened in New Orleans, yes. I would not choose to go through all of that again. Not that three years of recovery, the three years of the trauma, the three years of the pain, the heartache, the sickness. Yes.
If it reached that same point—and it would have to reach that same point as in New Orleans, to where my friends had all left me, there were no more options, and I could get help from no one anywhere at any time—yeah. I would say yes. Because I’ve lived through it and I know what it did to me. I’m ninety percent sure I would not choose to live through it again. And I think maybe part of that is because I have no fear of death. I have no fear of death because I know what’s on the other side. Choosing to just go to the other side, as opposed to living in the pain and the fear and the anxiety… I will choose the other side every time. I’m sure the minute I tell my therapist that, she’ll freak out.
Des: You haven’t told her yet! Yeah, I think the interpretation really lies in in people’s judgment of what it means to have attempted and what it means to continue to struggle with life, I guess.
Holly: I’m not struggling with life now. That has finally come and gone, other than minor little glitches here and there, like having to buy a tire for my car or something like that. Those are just normal every day things.
But when it comes to once again being homeless, living in my car, having to give my cat away to somebody so it doesn’t end up in a shelter or somewhere dead, going without food and money, being terrified every minute of the day that something or someone is going to get you, and there’s no security whatsoever, there’s no safety net, and your friends have all bailed on you… I choose the nap.
Holly’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 Michele Jarchow for providing the transcription to Holly’s interview, and to Sara Wilcox for editing.