Kae Wheeleris a suicide attempt survivor.
"I survived a suicide attempt."
Kae Wheeler, originally from Poughkeepsie, NY, works for an insurance company. They were 29 years old when I interviewed them in New Paltz, NY, on July 11, 2016.
CONTENT WARNING: brief discussion of suicide methods and self-injury methods
The first time that I attempted suicide, I was 13 years old. Basically, I was bullied throughout my whole life in school. Like, going from kindergarten up, and so I did not have the best self-esteem. I didn’t really have many positive outlets to get it out—to get out all that frustration—and so, starting at 13, I started cutting myself. It was more of just a way to deal, but not sure how to deal with the overwhelming feeling of how much I didn’t want to be here anymore.
I was 13 when I first attempted, and basically, I just took all the pills that were in the medicine cabinet, but I woke up the next day. It was summertime, and I was washing dishes at this little coffee place in town. Under the table. One of the people who worked there was talking about how, months before, she had gone into a hospital because of depression and behavioral issues and stuff like that, because she also had some other issues. I didn’t know that was a thing, that you could do that.
Since I knew that I was not in a good space, I went home that day. I wasn’t talking to anybody and I just laid on the couch, and I knew that I needed to say something to my parents. But I couldn’t. It took hours of me laying there to finally get it out.
I told my mother, who I am no longer in contact with anymore, but I told her. I was like, “I need to go to the hospital. I don’t want to be here anymore. I need help.”
I had been in therapy for a little bit before that, just with depression and stuff. She didn’t really know what to do. Then, when my dad got home, they talked it over, and I just was laying there crying. They had found out about my self-injury months before that, so they knew something was up, but I don’t think they thought it was to that extent that I wanted to… you know.
My first out of five or six hospitalizations was when I was 13. I was hospitalized three times at 13, and actually turned 14 in one of the hospitals. Basically, growing up, I always had that in-the-back-of-my-head feeling of not wanting to be here. I wasn’t actively suicidal, but had suicidal ideations, but wasn’t going to act on it because I was going to try to make it through. I’d been on medication. I’ve been on medication since I was 13 years old—and gone through so many fucking therapists.
I think what made it difficult for me to continue to ask was because I was the one that was putting myself back in the hospitals. I was the one asking for it, because I knew that I was not in a good space and I needed help. But I also knew that I just don’t want to fucking be here. I don’t want to. It was very contradicting that I didn’t want to be here, but I knew that I had to be, so I needed to get help.
I think a big thing with that is, when asking for help, it’s seen as looking for attention. Especially with the cutting and burning that I do. They say, “Reach out of if need anything.” But then it’s like, if you reach out and say, “Oh, I’ve cut,” then they’re like, “Well, you’re telling people about it like you want attention for it.” It’s like there’s no middle ground in regards to how it’s viewed.
Basically, from 12 going on, it’s been an ongoing battle in my head of, I really don’t fuckin’ want to be here, and trying to deal with that and having my meds changed. I don’t know. For two years, I was in and out of hospitals. Then I started to get my shit together, but there was always that in-the-back-of-my-mind feeling. But I knew that I had to be here.
I’ve managed to make it from 12 years old to 29, going on 30, but self-harm is still a major thing. That definitely came back when my brother, Andy, took his own life on June 2nd of 2014. I think we all thought that I would be the one to go first. That was a difficult thing to process. He had seen my first therapist but for a month or two. He actually really liked him. This was back when I was 13—he’s three years older, so he was 16. Then the insurance changed and he had to stop seeing him. He never went back, so he’d never been diagnosed, but he was always very angry and depressed. When I got the call from my mother, I basically lost it.
We weren’t talking at the time because I had sent everybody in my family, direct family members, something in the mail around Christmastime with a Christmas card saying, “Hey, I’ve legally changed my name.” It’s not like it’s that different from what my birth name was. I tried to make it easy for them, and he wouldn’t call me Kae. He wouldn’t say why. I mean, he told my father, “I don’t care that Kae changed their name, but I will not call them that.” To me, then, it became less about needing to educate, and it was more about a respect issue, so we stopped talking. I lost my chance to make amends.
He was always working, always very sleep deprived. I think a lot of it came from possibly bipolar. I mean, it runs in the family, but he was always on the go, very sleep deprived, and he ended up getting in a fight with his girlfriend. He just had a baby that was only a few months old.
They got in a fight. She said, “He’s like, “You know what? I’m just to going to go in the barn and hang myself.”” She’s like, “Fine, go do it,” thinking it was a power play. She went back up to the house with the baby and he went into the barn. After 20 minutes, he wasn’t back, so she checked on him and found him in the barn. He was planting an orchard. He was taking in abused horses and cows and stuff like that. He had plans. It was very just impulsive.
As someone with a constant little tick in the back of my head [asking myself why I’m really here], it’s hard, because I know what it’s like to be on that side. But I’m on the other side now, and I know that now. I’ll never be able to do that, because I delivered the news to my father, who lives in South Africa, at midnight our time, 7am their time. Nobody could get a hold of him. I had to deliver that news over Skype, and his face when I told him—forever imprinted.
The way my therapist worded it, he’s like, “Are you upset that that took away your option? Are you grieving the ability to no longer have that option in the back of your head?”
I hadn’t thought of it that way. But it’s like now I know that, no matter what happens, no matter where I am in my head, I no longer have that option because my father would never be able to handle the death of his only other child.
It’s two years now that he’s been gone. It’s a grieving process on both ends.
Des: Is the reason why you’re not talking to your mom relevant?
Kae: She physically abused my brother growing up and is emotionally abusive. I finally got out of the cycle of abuse. Because I’m 29, I don’t need to have to—I don’t rely on her, so I removed myself from that. She still attempts to contact me, but I blocked her on everything except for, obviously, the mail.
Des: Were you talking to her when Andy died?
Kae: Off and on. She was the one who told me.
The day prior was Pride here in New Paltz and, since, I haven’t been able to go; it’s basically been tainted for me. The next day, I was at the ER with my friend who had sliced a part of her finger off trying to make food. I had just gotten out of the ER with her. I was at the Rite Aid, and we were getting stuff for aftercare for her wound, and I got the call. I had stuff in my hands and my friend had no clue what was going on. I almost dropped the stuff on the ground. She was just picking it up, getting it out of my hands. I sat down. They had an aisle that was being redone, so there was nothing on it. I just sat on the bottom shelf and I just fucking sobbed. People were coming around the corner, looking.
I go to a suicide loss survivor group—people who have been left behind by their loved ones who have taken their lives. Everybody there can remember the time that they got the call and remember all the stuff. I don’t remember the time. It was a blur. Everything was just a blur. I drove us back to my friend’s place.
She’s like, “Do you want me to drive?”
I’m like, “No.” I was on auto-pilot.
I was just very removed from myself at that point, and so I stayed there for several hours. My housemate came there from work, and then my partner at the time came up from Long Island the next day.
Des: Do the members of the loss survivor group know that you’re also an attempt survivor?
Des: How have they responded to that?
Kae: I mean, they’re understanding of it. Nobody else, really, is on both sides. There’s one girl who self-injures, but is in recovery. Everybody else, I mean, they listen and they give support and everything, but it doesn’t really impact them. I don’t know.
The self-injury deal ever since has become more of an issue for me. I still am trying to grieve, because we’ve had several losses within months of each other—it’s just, now, everything is compiled and I’m trying to separate everything. Usually I only self-injure around the holidays, and so it’s like once a year. That’s why I felt that as soon as I saw that graphic on your page—well, part of it might have been a bipolar, impulsive thing for me—I was like, “I need to get that tattooed on me. I need to.” I got it tattooed on my thigh because that’s where I self-injure.
Des: Talk to me about the difference between self-injury and feeling suicidal or being suicidal. What’s the interplay? What’s the difference?
Kae: I think, for me, I think it depends on where I was in my head at the time, because back when I first started, I could control that. It was some of that control, but I’ve always taken things out on myself. I always beat myself up about things that other people might punch a wall or yell about. I always take it in on myself, and I think that was my way of then, back in the day, taking it out of myself but actually getting something out of it. Because afterwards, I mean, there’s the chemical deal with when you get hurt. It was my way of finally getting something out of it. That’s why I get tattoos, because it’s a socially accepted way to get that pain without people being like, “Whoa, what’s that?”
Back then, it did play into me hurting myself, because I really didn’t feel that I deserved to be here, so if I had to be here, I was going to take it out on myself. Now it’s more of an “I need a release because everything’s just bottled up” sort of thing. I describe my anxiety with it like seltzer water. When it’s bubbling up and it’s about to overflow. That’s how it feels for me. Especially at times like the holidays, or whether it be the one-year anniversary, or even the anniversary of the last time I spoke to him or what have you.
I know I’m going to self-injure when I’m lying in my bed and I can’t move, because if I move—you know when your leg falls asleep and you get that staticky feeling and you don’t want to move because it hurts and is uncomfortable? My whole body feels like that, and until I make the decision to get up and get something to burn myself with, I stay like that.
For me, now, it’s a way of me dealing with everything that I feel guilty about. I’ve tried to forgive. I thought I did forgive myself for not going to see him when I had a chance to the last time. Now the self-injury isn’t about wanting to die. It’s just needing to get that out of myself.
Des: People judge self-injury. Do you talk about it openly?
Kae: I’ve started to. That’s where getting that tattoo really was big for me, because I’ve never shown my scars to anybody openly. Obviously, any partners have seen it, but otherwise, I’ve never openly shown them or really talked about it because most people think, when you talk about it, like I had said, that you’re looking for attention. If less people thought it was about attention, it’d be easier for more people to talk about it and not have to do it. I’ve opened up about it on Facebook. On Tumblr, I’ve talked about it.
The woman that I’m seeing—I went to a family barbecue and I wore a bathing suit for the first time in years, so I’m meeting all these new people and I have the scars showing with the tattoo. That was very anxiety-inducing, but nobody said anything.
I mean, it is important. It does need to be talked about, just like suicide—whether it be someone that you had lost or your own story—that you’ve survived it. I think secrets make us sick, and I don’t want to be sick. I’ve always been an open person, so now that I’ve opened the door when it comes to that—I have to thank you so much because that was just—getting that tattoo was really what has helped me be more open and honest and being willing to answer questions and talk to people about it.
Des: Tell me a little more about the bullying.
Kae: I have the word for it now, knowing that I’m genderfluid, genderqueer. But when I was a kid, for quite a while, I was just like, “I’m a boy.” Then, when I hit puberty, I was like, “Okay, I’m cool with this.” But when I was younger and still boyish, but not knowing what really that meant, I remember telling somebody that I wished I was a boy. She went and told people who told people, and they started calling me “boy.” It wasn’t in a nice way. It wasn’t like, “Ooh, you’re a boy.” No, it was like they were antagonizing me, and that was like second or third grade. Prior to that, it’s just because I’m weird. I’ll just say that’s the reason, because kids are fucking weird, and I was weird, and they took advantage of it.
I’d always had short hair for a while—for most of my life. My parents were like, “Oh, well, they’re calling Kae a boy and Kae’s upset by that.” I was upset but because of why they were calling me that. It wasn’t because they were like, “Oh cool, you’re a boy.” It became, “You’re a boy. You’re a dyke. You’re fucking queer.” Even before my identity could really start to form, they were already picking it apart. That was the majority of my school life, and my parents didn’t know. They just figured that I was being called “boy” because I had short hair. I would come home crying every single day. Kids are just fucking cruel.
After the first hospitalizations, I was like, “I’m not going back to that school. I refuse to.” [It’s a school] where there’s maybe two families of color and they worked on the farms. It was just really conservative and really just narrow-minded, and not a place for people like me to thrive. I told my parents that I was not going back, but they made me go back. I made it like one week into the eighth grade and then told them, “I can’t do this. I need to go to the hospital. I need to go to the hospital.” Even just that one week was fucking horrible. I was hospitalized again and then again. Then, when I came out, they put me in an alternative school so I didn’t have to go back to my district.
It was years later that, after I found out the words for what I am, that it actually made sense. I was like, “Fuck, all my life I didn’t have this word and I was struggling with trying to figure out what the fuck is going on with me.” To find the words was really great. I was then able to tell my parents that they weren’t calling me boy because I had short hair. Maybe that was part of it, but it was also because I told them that I thought I was a boy, and they took it and ran with it. I know that threw my parents off, but yeah.
Des: Do you think figuring out your gender identity and stuff helped? Did it hurt? Did it do both? How did that work with the suicidal thoughts?
Kae: It was really just an aha moment. There wasn’t really any tie to it. Around that time, I was getting into the queer community for the first time, so I was actually enjoying life for a bit. I didn’t have really much of that background noise in my head. I was actually wanting to be alive and wanting to learn more. It helped, I guess. It toned down the noise in the back of my head, but… I don’t know. It’s odd when you can be happy and be in a good space, but have that background noise where you’re like, “Do I want to be here?” It’s not like you’re suicidal, but in the back of the head, it’s there.
I don’t think that’s something I could ever tell my father, because we’re very open ever since Andy. We’ve always been close, but now it’s like an adult in an adult conversation where he’ll tell me when he’s actually not doing good. It really hit him hard when Andy passed, and so we’re very close.
I write poetry, and it’s really the only times I can ever get anything out is when it’s around something that has to do with Andy. He’ll be like, “Are you okay?” I’ll send it to him for him to read because he keeps me included in his stuff, and I’ll keep him included. He’ll just be like, “Are you okay?”
Like, “Dad, I am okay. I’m not going anywhere.”
Even when I showed him the tattoo and the scars, he’s like, “I’m worried.”
I said, “Dad, I’m not going anywhere. I can’t go anywhere.”
He’s coming back for good. He’ll be here in August, because it’s just too much for him to be twenty-four hours away by plane and not on the same land. It’s just too much for him ever since Andy. They’re coming back. It’s going to be great. I’m going to lose my shit when I see him.
But I don’t think he would understand if I told him that there’s always that thought in the back of my head, and that there are days that I just really don’t want to be here. I don’t think he’d understand.
Des: What do you do on the days that feel more like you don’t want to be here than the others?
Kae: I take FMLA from my job. Thank god for that. Otherwise, I wouldn’t have a fucking job. I lay in my bed and I do nothing. I numb myself with bad TV and I won’t leave my bed except to go to the bathroom. That’s the safest bet for me.
And I have a really great neighbor. I’ll be like, “I don’t want to be around people, but…”
She’s like, “You need food.” She’s like, “You don’t have to talk to me. You don’t have to see me. Just go down to the bottom of your steps and there will be a care package of food sitting there.” She’ll be like, “There’s pudding there, so you get your sweets. You got soup in there.” On those days, she’s there for me.
Before I started working from home and I was traveling to Kingston every day, it was around the anniversary or something that had to do with Andy, or I just was not in a good space. I came home from work and she was outside. I was talking to her, and she’s like, “How are you doing?”
I’m like, “I can’t be around people.” I just started sobbing.
She’s like, “Well, I’m a person, and you can’t be around people, so get your ass upstairs. Go. Go.” She doesn’t judge or make me feel bad about it. She is the absolute best.
I’ve been a hermit for about two years now, ever since everything happened. I would go to work, but then I would come back and I’d just go right in my bed, and then fall asleep and do it all over again. Ever since Andy.
I have a lot of friends who are there, but something I’ve never been able to do is reach out when I’m in that space. I rarely go to functions and stuff like that. I feel bad, because I want to be a good friend, and I feel like I’m not being a good friend. I know they say that they understand and that it’s okay, but I still feel like I’m a bad friend because I’m not there.
I just stay in my apartment and do jigsaw puzzles. That’s it, because my Nana passed a few months after Andy, and she did jigsaw puzzles. I’m doing all of her puzzles, and then I have some of my own that I’m doing. So, I’m a hermit. I watch bad TV on my laptop and I do jigsaw puzzles, and other than that, I just lay there. That’s what I do on those days. That was my way of grieving her was doing that, and just lying there and doing nothing was my way of not knowing how to grieve Andy.
It comes in waves.
In my group, the one woman who’s no longer there anymore, she says it’s like an onion. There’s always another layer that you think that you’re getting at, and there just ends up being another layer, another layer. I think I have extra layers since I have the competing emotions between my lack of departure and his departure.
Des: What did you say to your therapist that day when he asked you that question?
Kae: It made sense. I’d never thought of it like that. For him to put it into words, I think that helped me with my own processing. It was definitely a statement.
Des: A lot of people have a lot of anger when someone dies because of suicide. Do you feel like you maybe skipped some of those kind of standard emotions? Did you have the anger? Did you feel like you understood it better? What did your feelings look like, other than grief and terror?
Kae: A mess. Complete fucking mess because understanding… I mean, his suicide was very impulsive so I don’t think we’re ever really going to know. We only know one side, and that’s the girlfriend’s side, so we’re never really going to know the full picture. But I understood the feelings that get you to that point, and I think that’s why I’m having a hard time grieving it is because I’m angry at him leaving. I’m angry that he’s left children behind…
There’s a lot of anger. There’s a lot of frustration. There’s a lot of guilt. The whole grief process is not linear at all. It just depends on the day, where it’s all over the fucking place. There’s also guilt, for me, that I was the one who asked for help and was going through the hospitals and getting on meds, and he was stuck. He didn’t get help. So, whereas we all thought that I would be the first to go, he ended up being it. I feel like there was some guilt I was dealing with with that—the fact that he didn’t get the help. He was stuck where my parents ended up getting divorced, and he had to be in that house and listen to everything that was going on. I didn’t have to be there to deal with that. My situation caused stress on the family, which then he had to be around for, and there’s a lot of things that I feel guilty for.
My therapist made me do a thing where I put down that thought and then what I would tell somebody else who is saying that. I mean, there’s no way to know if he would have gotten help even if I didn’t, and there’s no way to know if he still would have done what he did.
It was hard for me to ask for help because my mother made it seem like I was doing all this for attention. I’m just like, “I’m just trying to stay here. Even though I don’t want to stay here, I know that I have to stay here, so I’m just trying to stay here. Help me stay here.”
Des: Talk to me about what it feels like to be seen, especially this past couple of years. Tell me what it feels like to watch all the news coverage of the kids who were bullied and then having their suicides be blamed on the bullying. Talk about all the trans kids who are only getting recognition…
Kae: After they’ve taken their lives.
Des: …of their identities after they’ve taken their lives. There’s a couple of things to go with there.
Kae: Yeah. I think, as a trans person, gender non-conforming person, queer person, I was lucky enough, in a sense, because I didn’t come out as trans until I was in my mid-twenties. I only came out as not-straight when I was 15. I was lucky enough that my parents were okay with it. I was lucky enough that my parents accepted that.
If I had come out as trans when I was younger, with the response that I got from my mother [when I finally did], I don’t know if she would have kicked me out. She did not have a good reaction when I told her. She told me that I was never the daughter that she wanted me to be, that I made her life so difficult, and now it’s not even worth it. When I told her, like when I said, “I can’t believe that you said those things,” she’s like, “I don’t understand what was wrong with that.” She was cool when I was dating trans people because it’s not her kid, but then when I come out as trans, everything went to shit. Not that my relationship had been great anyway… It’s a cycle of abuse. I don’t know what my life would have been—how it would have been–if I had come to the realization of my identity back in that time.
My father has always, always been there for me. Regardless. He and his girlfriend even asked me—because my ex-partner used gender neutral pronouns as well as “he/him,” so was good with either one. I was “they/them.” My dad asked me. He’s like, “We’ve asked about so-and-so, but what about your pronouns?” That just floored me. I wasn’t hoping for anything. I was just hoping for my name; I was good with that. If you can get my name down, I am great. That floored me.
But definitely, if I were to grow up living where I was living, going to the school that I was going to, where just me saying that one thing caused so much that I couldn’t even handle staying in class… I’d have to run and go to the bathroom and just hide in the stall. I was just losing my shit. The teachers didn’t know how to deal with it. The counselors didn’t know how to deal with it, and then they reported me in regards to the self-injury. As much as I would have liked to have been able to understand my identity at the time so I might have been able to embrace myself a lot more and not have so much self-hate towards myself… if I’d come out as trans, I don’t know if I would be here. I don’t know if I would have made it through my teens.
I mean, if it’s not coverage of a trans person, usually a trans woman of color being killed or beaten and recorded, and then to see these young kids that are taking their lives because of all of the bullying and the lack of support from parents and teachers? I mean yes, we have the safe spaces and people who have the “I’ll Go With You” pins when it comes to going to the bathroom of whatever gender they feel comfortable with, with their identity. We’ve come far, to an extent, but there’s still so much farther to go.
And these kids aren’t going to see it.
There’s a lot of good representation out there, and I think that that will help, but… Trans Lifeline is a specific suicide hotline for trans people and gender non-conforming people. They’re bombarded with the calls. They can’t handle all the calls coming in.
Des: Yep, they don’t have enough money.
Kae: Then, when everything happened with Orlando—I remember 9/11, but to me, Orlando is my 9/11, because 9/11 didn’t really affect me. Orlando, to me, I was a fucking mess, and I didn’t know anybody. There’s so much representation, but with that representation comes more and more people seeing who we are and what they don’t like and, in a way, it’s also putting us out there to be harmed. I don’t know in whose lifetime it will actually be where that’s not an issue. I don’t know, but… definitely, it’s hard waking up and seeing another article.
In 2012, the National Center for Transgender Equality came out saying 41% of trans people attempt suicide in their lifetime. I look forward to seeing what the newer data says, with the survey that we just did over last summer, but it’s definitely a problem within the LGBTQ+ community, and we definitely need a lot more support for our kids than what there is.
Des: True story. What would you want to tell someone reading your story?
Kae: If you know you need help, but are worried about reactions from other people and their opinions, fuck ‘em. We need you here. If you need help and nobody’s listening, be loud.
Des: Is suicide still an option for you?
Kae: No. My mental health status will always be a struggle. I have depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder, eating issues throughout my whole life, self-injury, and anxiety-induced compulsive shit, like picking at myself—dermatillomania, trichotillomania—and then my bipolar. I’m always going to be on meds. I’m always going to have days where I’m not going to get out of bed. I’m always going to have a good day and wonder if I’m actually just having a good day or is it mania? It’s always going to be a struggle.
But in 17, 18 years of the bullshit, I’ve learned that I need to advocate for myself when it comes to a medication. If the doctor I’m seeing is not—if we’re not jiving—if they’re not accepting of my identity and are not respectful of it… my mental health status is not always going to be great, but I’m doing what I can to keep it as good as I can.
Suicide is no longer an option. Andy took that away. Maybe it’s a good thing. I want to smack him for it, but it is what it is. It just means that I have to work that much harder to keep my mental health as good as I can, and advocate as much as I can for myself, because nobody else is going to do it for me, which I why I was doing it at 13 fucking years old. Nobody was going to help me.