Nancy Nettlesis a suicide attempt survivor.
"I survived a suicide attempt."
I interviewed Nancy Nettles in Nashville, TN, on December 9, 2016. Nancy is originally from Buffalo, NY, she’s a clinical therapist, and she was 50 years old at time of interview.
I moved to Nashville about twenty years ago at the urging of my former husband.
He wanted to be closer to his kids, so I moved here. I didn’t know anyone else. I moved here and found out that that wasn’t the way the situation was going. I ended up having to find a place of my own, work, and try to take care of my kids.
I got sick and had to have surgery, back to back, so by the time I got out of the surgeries, I actually lost my job. When I lost the job, I had no way of paying the rent. Because I couldn’t pay the rent, my stuff ended up on the curb. I was homeless with two little kids. I think at that time, my son was probably about three and my daughter was five or six, somewhere around there.
Now I understand that my depression was probably becoming more evident. I really didn’t see any hope, any light, anything. It was just kind of like, I don’t know what to do. I’m living out of my car, and I remember thinking, “How did I end up in this place?” I had my college degree. I had been working before I moved to Tennessee, and here I am with no job, no friends, no family, and no place to live.
A friend of a friend paid for me and my kids to stay at a local hotel for about a month, which we did. It was right before my birthday. I was hoping that I would get a job and be able to afford the security deposit so I could get a place. That didn’t quite work out so well. The job was a temp job, so by the end of the month, again, I had no place to go.
Fortunately, I was able to go from couch to couch, kind of. The church that I was going to at the time, there were members who allowed me to come to their house and stay a week or so with the kids.
By the time my birthday came around, I had seen total darkness. I decided that my kids would be better off if I was not alive at all. I was not serving them as a mom. I wasn’t giving them their provisions, like food and shelter. I mean, it was constantly, “Where am I going to get this?” on a regular basis.
I decided that they would be better off with their dad. After all, he’s the one who had the job, had a place. That’s why he moved here. That was my thought process, and with that, I decided that I would take my life.
I planned it on my birthday. At the time, I didn’t think through having the kids around. I did the deplorable thing and the kids were at home. My first attempt, I took [pills] and I chugged back vodka. I’m not a drinker. Just a taste should have made me sick, but it didn’t. I said, “I don’t care, I’m just going to do this,” so I did, and my daughter found me. Fortunately, she remembered that, any time anything happens, to call 911. She knew the pastor of the church we had been going to, and knew his cell phone number, so she called him as well.
That’s the first attempt. I was in the hospital for about two weeks. I think I felt more guilt and shame than anything. I remember my family telling me I was going to go to Hell. I was going to burn in Hell. That stuck with me. Here we are, twenty years later, and I remember that distinctively. Then I was out again and in this cycle of, “Okay, I still have no place to live. I still don’t have a job. I still have no way of taking care of my kids.” I decided to let their dad keep them so they, at least, would be safe, have a roof, and all those things that they deserved to have.
I kind of lived out of my car, I lived on couches, whatever. I think, the second time that I tried, I was actually at my therapist’s office. He finally got it out of me what I had done, because I had all this energy. They had put me on a medication that, for children, makes them calm; for adults, it gives them lots of energy. So I took that, but I also threw back some kind of liquor. I don’t know if I passed out. I have a black out there. I remember being at the hospital, and then I remember being in handcuffs for the first time in my entire life.
I was like, “I’m in handcuffs. What did I do?” I mean, that was my first thought: “What did I do that I had to be in handcuffs?” Then I remember them telling me that I had been sitting there for six hours just totally catatonic. Again, I’m thinking, “Why am I in handcuffs? I haven’t done anything, so why am I in handcuffs?” They took me to the psych hospital. They said that was the way they transported those who had attempted suicide from the hospital to the psych hospital—in handcuffs. That was the explanation they gave me. Even the thought of that now is like, “Oh my gosh, I was in handcuffs in the back of a police car.”
I stayed maybe a week that time. Again, they sent me back. At that time, I had been on so many anti-depressants—the newest ones, the old ones. I had been on all of them. Nothing was working. Finally, I think about three months later, I said, “You know what? I’m not doing this right.”
My last time [attempting] suicide—this was three times in a year—I created a concoction of some pretty strong medications. I drank it and I left letters this time. When I woke up, I’d been in a coma for three days. I realized that, “Okay, God, the universe, did not see fit for me to leave here the way I wanted to.”
I remember a case manager may have been in the room with me, and she was like, “You should be dead.” According to biology, according to the doctors, I should have been dead. They couldn’t pump my stomach. They couldn’t give me charcoal. It was just like, I should be dead. Because I was smart. I knew I wasn’t doing this right. I went back and did some research on how could I make this successful. I was very serious about this. I never told anyone. I kept it to myself.
I went through intensive therapy probably twice a week. I was dealing with a rape that happened to me when I was a little girl. I was dealing with sexual molestation that happened to me from babysitters growing up. That, in and of itself, was causing a lot of how I felt about myself. I didn’t realize that stuff that you bury comes back to haunt you later on in life, which it did. I saw horrible things. My sister was a victim of domestic violence, and she was killed. All this stuff. Mom and Dad didn’t really know how to manage all that. I’m not angry with them, and I made my peace with them awhile back. When I first went to college, I had an abortion. Oh my gosh.
All this to say: I’m a pastor’s kid. That’s not supposed to happen to me. But after going through all that, I was not going to keep quiet anymore. I went through a lot of different trainings to empower me, but also to help others see that there’s hope. I think that was a big part of me shifting how I thought.
I went through shock therapy. I had nine. The depression didn’t lift. It really didn’t. It took away some of my memory, but I got it back. What it’s supposed to do didn’t happen.
I know all too well the journey is not smooth. There were lots of valleys. There were some peaks, but there were some real valleys. Eventually, I did get a place to live. I was able to kind of get a job and I ended up on disability, actually. But I still couldn’t just be home. That wasn’t my thing.
I started volunteering for the Lupus Foundation because I was having some problems with walking. About six months after that, I found out I had multiple sclerosis. Now I’ve got this other thing on my back, and I’m just like, “Oh my gosh.” But I think, at that point, I was in a better place mentally to be able to say, “Okay, what do I need to do?”
So, I volunteered for them, and then I volunteered for the Multiple Sclerosis Foundation locally. I started doing more of the “bridges,” which is kind of a tool we use with families and other consumers of mental health to understand what’s going on with them, their brain, the emotions. I come from a teaching background, so I would come up with some really creative ideas of helping, because not everyone learns the same way. That was always my belief. That’s kind of how I got into advocacy. Now I’m kind of knee deep in it, and I’m not afraid to tell my story.
I’ve told my story in front of legislators. That was the most challenging time, because they’re all sitting there with their little pens and crossed legs and suits and whatnot, and I’m telling this story about being homeless and [attempting] suicide and all that kind of stuff. However, it was really kind of cool that they also allowed me to use one of the gifts that I have, which is singing, so I ended it with singing. I think that kind of stood out for me.
Then I just continued to volunteer until I got kicked off of disability. I didn’t even know it. I was dealing with my mom who had just died from Alzheimer’s. I had been working, just little part-time things to make sure I wasn’t going over.
So, new journey. I got a job working with college students as an advisor. I kept getting these college students who were struggling, like really struggling, and it wasn’t just about the academics. It was about life. It was about their emotions. It was about their mental health. It had nothing to do with academics, and I found myself being really drawn into wanting to help them figure it out.
I thought, “I really need to think about what I need to do. What is my next step?” I had one kid in college and one almost there. I had one parent gone, one parent in a nursing home. I’m kind of in that transition of life. I needed to figure out what I was going to do to go through the rest of my life, and decided to go back to school. I went back to school for clinical counseling and finished in August of this year.
Des: So it’s still new and exciting.
Nancy: Yes, and sort of. I spent almost two years in an internship with a facility that primarily works with women in addiction who have been incarcerated. This is the homeless, don’t have anywhere to go, no family—kind of like my story. Although I didn’t have an addiction, I have a family member who has, so I really kind of know that story. I felt like it was where I needed to be, so that’s what I did.
Des: How old were you when you attempted, and when you were homeless? Give me a sense of the timeline.
Nancy: Thirty-one, thirty-two.
Des: How long were you homeless?
Nancy: Almost a year. It was hard because I didn’t know anyone. I think that made it the most difficult. I didn’t know anyone but my ex-husband. People were like, “Well, you can go home.” Eh, not really. What am I going to do? Leave my kids here? My parents were older parents, so they were already in their 70s. They got saddled with my sister’s kids because she passed away. Now I’m supposed to go back? I just felt like I couldn’t do that.
I kept working, kept trying to figure out how I could get back on my feet. It was tough. It was very difficult. I spent many, many days just sitting in the dark. A lot of times, I did a lot of writing. I’ve been trying to finish a book for the longest. It’s not difficult to write. It’s just, there’s so much. I don’t want to be overwhelming, because I can get very descriptive and specific, just because that’s how my brain thinks. That’s kind of why it’s taking me a little time—and school, of course, taking exams and passing your comps.
Des: Have you reconciled those feelings you had when you attempted with your kids and motherhood?
Nancy: Yeah. I’ve actually had some major conversations with my kids because, unfortunately, my kids have had some traumas happen to them since that time. One of the things that I was determined to have was that open communication with my kids. My kids tell me everything, and I do mean everything. Oh my goodness. It’s a great thing, but oh my goodness. You got to be prepared when you say that.
I have really worked hard at trying to keep that. One thing is, because of the MS, they were my primary caretakers. That gave them even more access to me as a human versus just me as Mommy. Everything I’m telling you, they already knew. There’s no secrets. I refuse to go to that place. My parents and my ex’s family, they believe in these secrets. The secrets are what was killing me because I couldn’t tell anyone that I was molested by my sister’s husband. I couldn’t tell anybody.
It’s like, I couldn’t say a word. I told my mom and I don’t think she knew what to do with it. It was like, no conversation. So, when it happened to me when I was a little older and it was a babysitter—guess what, I didn’t say anything because I knew I wasn’t going to get the response. I’m holding onto all of this pain, all this trauma, and keeping it a secret. Then I went through an abortion alone. I had to cross a picket line. It was horrible. Again, I was away from home. I didn’t tell my parents for twenty years. So, secrets? No. I refuse to have secrets. Sometimes that makes people uncomfortable, but oh well. This is me. This is my life.
Des: Welcome to it.
Nancy: Exactly. My kids know way more than I think a lot of kids probably know about their parent, but I think it also is the reason why we’re so close.
Des: You sound like my mom. I like that. Are you still going to Hell?
Nancy: I don’t think so. At least, not because of my suicide attempts, anyway. Maybe some of these bad relationships. That’s a whole ‘nother story. But yeah, no.
Interestingly enough, I’m actually working on certification in spirituality because I hear that so much. As I was reading through it, I really liked it. My understanding of the world’s religions is: the foundation is love. I think, even though I am a Christian, [that] doesn’t discount if you happen to practice Buddhism. I made it a point to understand world religions from that basis.
When I work with people, they’re at different places. So I try to help them understand there’s a difference between religion and spirituality. I’m looking forward to finishing it, taking the exam, and getting certified. I think, the more I work with clients, the more I feel like they’re lost because of past hurts, past patterns of behavior that they grew up around. They believe that they’re worthless. When you start to feel like you’re worthless, that helps you to truly want to give up on life.
Des: I feel like faith and spirituality would really play a pretty heavy role down here in Nashville.
Nancy: It really, really does. I can tell you at least once a day, somebody is telling me about, “Well, my belief is this and so I’m going to do this. I’m worthless, dah, dah, dah.” At least once a day. At least. The sad part is that you don’t have the resources.
One of my goals is to really try and give voice to many of the folks that I come in contact with. If I could just reach out to every leader that participates—if they’re in the synagogue, if they’re in the church, in the temple, wherever—I just want to reach out to them and educate them, to let them know that this isn’t a death sentence. You’re not going to Hell. You’re not this horrible person because this is what you’re contemplating. This is a struggle. This is a cry for help. This is pain. This is real. This is trauma.
That’s one of the things that I’m determined to get over.
Des: Do you still have suicidal thoughts?
Nancy: I have not.
Nancy: I haven’t. I have realized that, even when I’m feeling in my darkest moments, which I have—those don’t go away because, if you’re still alive, you’re going to have them—I go back to my journals and they really give me life. They give me life and light.
The difference is mentally. I was very fortunate to get the help I needed, to be able to have the interaction with people who really do care, and therapists who were really very good. I couldn’t put anything past them. They would just know. I’d walk through the door, and they’d just know. I had that intensive care for such a long time and then when I went through relationships, divorces and all of this other stuff, I realized that I needed to have somebody else in there.
Not because I probably wouldn’t have thought about [suicide], but it’s because I knew, “Okay, heads up. I’m feeling like I’m starting all over again.” I just went into therapy again. That’s the only reason. I was very fortunate. I wasn’t ashamed either. It was cool.
Des: That’s life.
Des: Tell me about the struggle of being a “strong black woman” and talking about suicide.
Nancy: Yeah, I heard that from a counselor. I don’t even remember their name, so that’s a good thing. They told me I was a “strong black woman.” She asked me why in the world would I even consider wanting to hurt myself, wanting to kill myself.
I knew I didn’t want to go back to her. I had gained enough information and education that I knew I didn’t have to go back to see her. But I think, once I started on the path to being a therapist, I knew that I would never be that person. What’s frustrating is that it’s a cultural thing. When you think about the world of medicine in general, people of color tend to be very, very leery. What’s interesting is that they will take a physician’s opinion before they would even consider going to someone like me, or an LPC, or a social worker, or anything like that.
There’s that, and then you have the stigma of mental health, in general. All of that is still a big stigma. Then you have church. Black folks go to church, for the most part. Not all of them, but quite a few, especially those in my age bracket.
I’m not supposed to have these kinds of problems. I’m a pastor’s kid. I’ve been in church all my life. I need to pray—and I’m not saying I didn’t do any of those things. I did all of those things, but just like when my father had diabetes and he had to go on insulin eventually, he had to take that insulin however many times a day. And he did. Same for me. When I was on whatever medication, whatever it was, I needed to take it every day. Like clockwork. Well, for some reason, there’s a difference. I have never figured it out.
A big part of my advocacy is definitely with my own culture and helping them understand. [I’m asking], “Why is it that you will take the insulin, but you won’t take whatever medication your psychiatrist has asked you to take to help you with balancing what’s going on in your brain? If we take the brain off of the rest of our body, how’s the rest of our body going to work? You’re telling me you don’t believe in this mental health stuff. [That I’m] not praying, [I] don’t have enough faith, [I] don’t trust God enough, whatever. The reality is it has nothing to do with it.”
That’s actually something that I’m trying to figure out how I can help even more, because it’s still there. It’s still prevalent, which is why so many of my sisters go without help. The help comes in drugs, alcohol, men, sex, prostitution, and the list goes on. Yet, they’re holding all this trauma in. When I finally do get to one, it’s like they’re desperate.
It’s very frustrating, because they’ll say, “Well, my church said to do this,” or, “My pastor said that he’ll pray.” Again, I’m not discounting any of that. However, I always give them: “When you have diabetes, you take your insulin, do you not? So, if you have bipolar, why not take your medication?”
Des: All those things work together, too.
Nancy: Yeah, they do. They really, really do. I’m writing a curriculum I’m doing for a counseling center. It’s looking at the mind, body, and spirit, and how they connect. I’m trying to write it in a way that helps anyone understand that they all connect, and if you don’t do this, it will affect this.
Des: Yeah, there are a lot of cultural competency issues. I mean, how many social workers are white? All of them.
Nancy: Yeah. Pretty much. I mean, we live in America. I work in a little town way out in rural Tennessee.
Des: How far away?
Nancy: Like forty-five minutes. If you see me walking through the door, you don’t look like me. You can imagine the eyes. I’m always having to normalize and help people be more relaxed around me because I’m talking about something that’s very personal. Sometimes very painful. I know that.
I’m kind of thankful that I lived in Minnesota for a while. We lived in a very diverse neighborhood. I know that helped a lot with me just looking at people for who they are, rather than what they are. My dad was all about just looking at the person, so that stuck with me.
I think a lot of times, when a black man or a black woman walks in a counseling center and only sees white people, they’re probably going to be pretty reluctant to allow you to talk about their stuff or even allow you to unpack any of their stuff. It can be very tug-of-war, based on just my own experiences. It took me a long time to open up.
I tease my therapist. Well, he’s no longer my therapist, but I tease him. I say, “Yeah, I bet you want to shut me up now,” because I didn’t talk for weeks. I’d come and sit and just look at him because I was petrified of men. Petrified. Because I had had these experiences, and I didn’t know what it was or how to deal with it. But I chose a man because I didn’t want to go through the rest of my life that way. I was in my early thirties, and I didn’t want to go through life like that.
I remember the first support group I went to was Emotions Anonymous. I don’t even think that exists anymore [ed. note: It does], but at that time, it did. I walk in and there’s nothing but men. I thought, “Really? This is funny.”
A lot of times, men don’t want to go to counseling because it’s a sign of weakness, right? They definitely ain’t going to talk about their emotions, so what better place? So, here I am in the room full of men—white men, at that. I was like, “Oh my goodness,” but the one guy was so nice. I sat at the door for a few weeks to get comfortable and, eventually, they were really very supportive. But yeah, I’ve been in some very interesting situations as a black female.
Des: I want to talk more about cultural competency.
Nancy: I think it’s interesting. I read an article this morning asking about how is it that people of color do not see a counselor or social worker, and why? Why is that? Well, they did a study. The study had a person call a counselor. First, the caller’s name was Alison and second, the name was Laquita. Kind of obvious, we know there’s a difference, perhaps, in culture, right?
When they did this, apparently the study identified the fact that counselors actually are biased against wanting to see people of color. It was an interesting study. When I read it, I was sad, but not surprised. They didn’t identify why or specifics, but just the fact that the person named Alison was more likely to get a callback to schedule an appointment than the person who called as Laquita. Unfortunately, that is the real world.
I’ve heard counselors say things like, “They probably have X, Y, Z insurance.” Things like that. It breaks my heart because we’re in a helping profession. At the same time, I know it’s a business and I understand that. I have to pay bills, so I get it, but I get concerned, because we wonder why people of color do not have access. When you read studies like this, it kind of balances out when you think about it.
Des: Yeah, and then when you’re in a crisis, who do you have to call? The cops.
Nancy: I did trainings for cops and PO officers and all that, back like fifteen years ago. I was under a program, and it’s amazing. With all the education, the access to the internet, you would think people would really understand this whole world of mental health. They do not.
Nancy: It angers me because I see it over and over again.
Des: Even in people within the field.
Nancy: Oh, yeah.
Des: There’s so much discrimination against attempt survivors, specifically.
Des: That’s something I come up against all the time.
Nancy: All the time. At first, I was kind of, “Ugh, do I say anything?” Then I thought, “You know what? I got into this because of what happened to me, so I’m not going to stop now.” It wasn’t like it’s been just a year or two. It’s been a long enough time that I am healthy enough to be able to talk about that. I want people to feel okay to talk about it, to feel okay to get help when they need to. That’s how I look at it.
Des: This is the only question that I ask everybody: is suicide still an option for you?
Nancy: No, not for me. The reason I say no is because I know that there is help. I know that, even if I feel like there’s no hope—which I have felt like there was no hope—I know there’s help. There’s a difference. When you feel like there’s no hope and no help, then you don’t feel. You aren’t there. That’s how I feel.
Now, I may not feel like there’s hope or that there’s even light sometimes, but I know that there’s help and it literally is a phone call away from me. That makes the big difference, now. I didn’t have that twenty years ago.
Des: How have you been helped by your suicide attempt or any of your traumatic experiences? How have they benefited you?
Nancy: They actually shape my beliefs and values. When I first started dealing with this stuff, I was of the belief that I was going to Hell because I had done all these horrible things. I don’t believe that anymore, but it didn’t happen overnight. I grew up with these beliefs, so it took time to shape where I am today. The traumas that I’ve experienced have shaped me.
My son says I’m a healer, a helper. It’s always been in my spirit. That may be why I had so many unsuccessful relationships, because I want to fix, and you can’t fix. You can’t! I learned the hard way, but that has really shaped who I am. The traumas that I’ve experienced have really shaped who I am as a woman—as a black woman, as a mom, as a big sister, as an aunt, as a friend. I think people know that they can come and talk to me regardless, and they do. I mean, total strangers talk to me all the time.
Des: You’re a magnet.
Nancy: I am. I’ll get their whole life history, and I’m like, “What did I do?” At the same time, imagine that connection, and being able to be talking to someone like me who’ll actually listen. Sometimes that’s all they need is someone who’s listening. I think that the traumas that I’ve experienced [have] helped me to have that extra layer of empathy and compassion.
Des: It’s amazing. People don’t realize. All it really requires to save a life is to screw on your ears. It’s funny. You have to tell them that.
Nancy: All the time. Even as a crisis counselor, I couldn’t solve their problems. I couldn’t fix their problems, and I instinctively knew that. A lot of times, it’s just about listening. They would actually call that out after they were finished. They were like, “Wow, you really were listening.”
I think, because someone listened to me, finally, that’s why I can do that. Because before, I probably couldn’t. I probably would do like a lot of people—jump in or fix it, and not give the person the opportunity to just talk it through—which is probably why I go over my time every time I’m in counseling because I hate to cut them off. I’m working on it.
Nancy’s story is sponsored by a grant from the hope & grace fund, a project of New Venture Fund in partnership with global women’s skincare brand, philosophy, inc. Thanks to Alison Rutledge for providing the transcription to Nancy’s interview, and to Sara Wilcox for editing.