Rayna Villaseñoris a suicide attempt survivor.
"I survived a suicide attempt."
I interviewed Rayna Villaseñor in Detroit, MI on July 29, 2017. She’s a full-time and college student. She’s from the Quechan tribe in Southern California, and identifies also as Hispanic and Black. She founded the Native Cry Outreach Alliance in 2010. She was 37 years old at the time of our interview. You can read her story in Spanish here.
I’m a two-time survivor of suicide loss. My niece died by suicide at age nineteen. A month after that, I lost my twenty-seven year old best friend from accidental suicide. Before those two stories came along, I tried in 2004. I was in a very unhappy and unhealthy marriage that started way too young. We were just way too young. It escalated to a point where I didn’t want to live anymore. I tried to take my own life.
At that time, it actually came very, very close. It took no more than five seconds to realize I made a mistake. Within those five seconds, I literally heard my children when they were kids. They were little babies. I heard them crying. They were nowhere around. I believe if I didn’t hear their cries, I probably would not be here today.
I did get myself some help—inpatient care. I was gone for about two weeks. Within that time, I had to find who I was. It still took several months before I actually got the help I needed to move on and separate from my ex-husband. It was an everyday struggle just to have that dark cloud.
People asked me why. They’d say, “Why did you do that? You had kids. You’re selfish. Didn’t you think about anybody else?”
When you’re in that dark tunnel, you do block out everybody because your pain is so strong. You think you’re a burden on everybody else. Your kids are better off. Your loved ones are better off without you. I didn’t think about anybody else. You may call it selfish. I call it trying to heal my own pain in one way or another. A saying goes, “Your loved ones may be gone, but their pain starts right after.” The thing is, nobody knows until you’re in their shoes. Especially coming from a Native American reservation, it’s a taboo to talk about it. But at this point, nobody talks about it, so why not talk about it?
That was my first attempt. My next one was because I was drinking quite heavily and thinking about the lost ones that I loved, and I tried again. That one was scary because I didn’t really wake up for two days. Maybe three days I was out. That scared me.
It’s been about seven years since I’ve been clean from self-injury, and it’s an everyday struggle still. I’m not going to lie. It’s not easy, but I see the pain that my nieces and nephews still deal with. I see the pain in my mom’s eyes from when I tried the first time. She’s seventy-one now. I’d rather be here until she goes, so she knows that she did raise somebody strong.
Des: You alluded earlier to having experience with domestic violence. How does that experience interplay with suicidal thoughts?
Rayna: When you feel like you are trying to do everything the best that you can, and your person doesn’t realize they have somebody special in their life and they treat you like dirt, it’s in the back of your mind all the time.
You think, “I’m not doing a good enough job being a wife. I’m not doing a good job being a mother,” so you think, “Why be here?” You constantly have somebody dictating who you are and what you’re doing.
I don’t blame him completely. I can take my part of the responsibility. I could have prevented it by speaking up for myself, but being so young, not knowing any difference, I took it over and over for about seven years.
Now we’re at a point where our kids are teenagers now, and we co-parent as best as we can. We both have different lives now. I’m remarried. The man I’m with today, and for the past thirteen years, he saved me. He kind of taught me what love is all over again. Without him, I feel I would have been lost.
Des: How did you get out of the previous relationship?
Rayna: I finally, at the end, said enough was enough, that I wasn’t in love anymore and needed to find out who I was, because we were together since we were sixteen. It was a long time. It was a struggle to walk away, but I finally got to walk away and say, “Look, enough’s enough.”
I didn’t want my sons to think, “Hey, it’s okay to treat women this way,” or for my daughter to fall in that same chain and find somebody who doesn’t respect her. I’d rather show them that you need to be respected for who you are.
Des: What about being sexually assaulted? How does that fit in with your experience of suicide?
Rayna: Being sexually assaulted was hard. I was fourteen. I know it wasn’t my fault, but what happened back then, I kind of carried it into different relationships. That was the sucky part—to have difficulty knowing that this man you’re with now is not that man that hurt you or harmed you back then. I think it’s like a domino effect sometimes, especially with something like that.
Des: There are all these different traumas building up.
Rayna: Yeah. Honestly, my mom admitted to me that she had many traumas. When I’m sitting back and thinking about everything I lived through, my mother lived through [it]. And my grandmother. I feel like that historical bloodline trauma does trickle down, so I’m trying to educate my fourteen year old daughter: don’t be so afraid of life, but be aware of your surroundings. This could probably happen to you too, and if it does, make sure you seek help.
Des: Yeah, I mean, one in six women have been sexually assaulted over the course of their lifetime.
Rayna: Yeah, and growing up on the reservation, the statistics are so high. There are advocates out there. There are support groups out there. Still, to know that it’s happening so much is hardening.
Des: Talk to me about Native American culture and suicide, how that played a role in your life, what you went through, and how you got through it.
Rayna: Well… you got enough time? That’s going to be a long story.
Des: It’s a small question, right? Just a little one.
Rayna: Yeah. Okay, well… to grow up on a reservation and to know that you dealt with sexual assault, as well as suicide attempts, you do get judged. Either that, or you’re being condemned for your actions, but the people condemning don’t know the back story about how it trickled down to that point.
It is a taboo to talk about it. Nobody wants to talk about it because they’re afraid that it might spread like cancer. But you know what, right now, at this point, a lot of people aren’t talking about it. Going through that sexual assault trauma, as well as attempting to take my own life, was spoken about on the reservation like wildfire. Some people said, “Why did you do it? How come you didn’t succeed?”
To be laughed at by family was hard to deal with. It’s like, “How can you poke fun at the situation? You could have lost your loved one.”
It was devastating, but I didn’t look down. I didn’t walk around with my head hung down. I looked straight up.
We all have our pasts. You come from a small community, you’re supposed to take care of each other like a family, not be so against everybody. Be there to help and support.
I know it’s not just on my reservation. It’s on a lot of reservations, as well as urban natives that live in big cities. I came from a small town. Coming from a big city—yeah, it is hard. It messes with you mentally, especially if you live on a reservation.
Des: The suicide rates are high among Native American communities across the country.
Rayna: Yeah, it’s very high. After we lost my niece, I wanted to do something.
My husband asked, “Why did you try to take your own life?”
I said, “I’ll be honest; I wanted my cries to be heard. I wanted somebody to hear me, to know that I was going through some pain.” Nobody talked about suicide. Nobody talked about depression. Nobody talked about postpartum depression after having children. I said, “I just wanted somebody to help me because I was trying to help myself.”
Before I tried to take my own life, I called five people. [I wanted] somebody to say, “Are you okay?” The last call was my mom. She said, “Babe, I gotta go to the doctor. I’ll talk to you later.”
I said, “Okay.” I didn’t say, “You won’t,” but I said, “Okay.”
The hospital that she went to [was the same hospital I was taken to]. I ended up getting wheeled in by a wheelchair because I was kind of out of it, and they wheeled me right by my mom. She asked, “What’s wrong with her?” I can remember her vaguely.
They said, “She tried to overdose.”
She ran into the ER and they pumped my stomach. She was holding my hand and she asked, “Why? Why? Why?”
That’s all I can remember.
But before I went that route, I tried to call somebody [who would] say, “Are you okay? Do you need to talk?” Yeah, we all have social media. We can all message each other, poke each other, like each other’s [posts] but, every now and then, pick up that phone. It’s so much better just to hear that live voice.
Des: We know that Native American communities are experiencing something that’s raising the suicide rates more on reservations than in other areas. What do you think is the cultural difference?
Rayna: When people ask me why the rates are so high on reservations, I give them a visual. Stick yourself in a box. You’re being raised in a four-corner place that you were never meant to be secluded in. With Native Americans, the whole of the land was theirs; the reservations pretty much were POW camps to place Native Americans, like, “Hey, you stay here, we’re cutting off this land.”
You have a little bit of means on this little place, and there’s high alcoholism, high drug abuse, sexual assault, domestic violence, incest, rape… How can younotfeel there’s no hope? A lot of individuals can see the hope, but it’s very slim. You’re giving that person just a little place to move and maneuver around. It’s hard to validate there’s something more out there.
I’ll be honest—I thought the world was only reservations. Second place I ever lived was Las Vegas, and I was like, “Wow. There are multiple people who are not Natives that live nearby.” I was shocked. Moving here to Michigan, I was more shocked. “There’s trees!” All I’d seen was tumbleweeds before.
But stick yourself into a small place, always seeing alcoholism and everything I stated. It’s hard to fathom that there’s hope and help out there. Educating people that there’s more out there is what I’m trying to help with. You can get hope. You can get help. There is hope out there.
Des: You mentioned that you were the first person on the reservation to tell your story.
Rayna: Yeah. Honestly, I feel I was the first person in my era to admit I tried to take my own life, to talk about my niece’s life, to talk about my best friend’s life… The reason I wanted to tell my story and talk until I was blue in the face is because I don’t want nobody else to feel alone.
Since I opened that door back at home, I get more people messaging me. They’d say, “Hey, I thought about it; I didn’t try, but I thought about it.”
[I] try to make them to see that it’s okay. It’s okay to think about. You’re human. Everybody will have that thought run across. It’s all about action. If you feel that urge, that action coming—stop, breathe. I tell them to time it. Look at a clock and see how long that feeling lasts. If it’s no more than like five seconds, then you’re okay. If it goes longer, that’s when you need to reach out. Call somebody.
Des: Talk to me about what it’s like to be a loss survivor and an attempt survivor, to be on both sides of that.
Rayna: To me, to be able to be both… It’s odd to say, but I feel blessed. I get to shine a light for the ones who want to know the reason why.
I talked to a Facebook friend who was dealing with the loss of her son’s father. She had the grief and the anger, and wanted to know, “Why? Why?”
I told her, “I can’t give you the whys, but here’s my story.”
The way I explained it for her is that, when I attempted, I was looking at a mirror in a bathroom and I was staring right directly in my own eyes, and I couldn’t see anything. I couldn’t see my own image. That’s how scary it was. I think I was looking into my own eyes to try to see something. When I did what I did, I heard my kids crying and they were nowhere in sight. That snapped me [out of it] and I saw my own image, but it was too late. It was too late.
She asked me, “Why did you get that far even though you heard your kids’ cries?”
I heard them afterwards. I was in a zone where I didn’t even hear my own breath. I didn’t see my own vision. I didn’t think about anybody. I couldn’t even think about myself at that same time. I’m not weak. I’m a strong individual.
When you’re in that zone, in that dark place where you can’t even see your own image, there’s no words to even explain the whys. The ones who are gone, who died by suicide, they take [the whys] with them. It doesn’t help anybody to ask the whys, because they’re gone already. That’s the hard part to explain.
Yeah, it still hurts to this day, but I know the more I dwell on it, it doesn’t help them any. It doesn’t make them rest.
Des: What good has come from your suicide attempt? What good has come from all of these traumas that you’ve been through?
Rayna: …I have three grandsons now. I have a very large family. I know it’s going to get bigger. I want to see them grow up. I want to see their kids. I want to be able to help as many as I can to show them that life is worth living. Having both good and bad from my past until now gives me the strength to keep on going. To be able to help others…
Des: Do you still have suicidal thoughts?
Rayna: I’m not going to lie, but yes. I do. It does run through my head. Then I stop and I try to do any kind of techniques I can. I use breathing techniques. Sounds corny, but I lay down and I try to hear my own breaths. If that doesn’t work, I will text somebody or say, “Hey, can you call me? I’m having a rough time.” I feel bad because I don’t want to feel like a burden, but at that time, it’s like, “Heck, I’m going to burden you. Please call me.” If I don’t, the worst enemy is my thoughts.
I don’t like diagnosis, but when I was an inpatient, they diagnosed me borderline bipolar. I was like, “What is that? Is that another new disease I got to read up about? I don’t want to Google that.” Honestly, we all deal with something. I just see it as another gift that I have to endure.
Des: Is suicide still an option for you?
Rayna: Suicide? No. Not anymore. It took a long time to say that. I’ve been with my husband thirteen years. Out of those thirteen years, for ten years of our marriage, he constantly asked, “What makes you happy?”
I’m like, “Hell, I don’t know,” so I Googled it. I’m like, “What makes a person happy?”
Funny thing is, there’s a place in San Francisco. It’s called Project Happiness. Randy Taran created this project that asks, “What does happiness mean to you?” Her curriculum goes down the basis of these seven doors of what happiness means to you. It helped me so much. It was elevating to read her book and to see her documentary that took her all over the world—even to interview the Dalai Lama, Richard Gere, and George Lucas.
My happiness now is not just my family, like my grandchildren and my husband. My happiness now is just to be able to live life to the fullest. After all these years, to finally say that, it makes me smile.
Des: What would you want to say to anybody reading or watching your story?
Rayna: Just think about it. Just think about it before you have that notion of, “Is suicide an option for me?” You take that one step, that one action, what is it going to achieve? [You] don’t have to think about your loved ones. Think about yourself. If you feel your pain is too intolerable to go through, there’s help out there. If you can’t reach out for that help, just give it time. That help will come in different forms. It could be that stranger walking by, giving that smile. That’s one form of help that you have to wait to see about.
Des: Tell me more about why you tell your story.
Rayna: It helps me heal. Honestly. It’s my own self medicine, if that makes any sense. People have the gift to make people laugh, and I call them medicine people because laughter is healing. I figure I can tell my story one hundred, ten thousand times more, and if that one person can say, “If she made it out, I can make it out. If she tried to kill herself and she’s talking today, I know I don’t have to try because she got help. There’s help out there.”
That’s one thing. I try to share it as much as I can because I don’t want somebody to have to go through my rocky road. I want them to be able to know you don’t have to take that rocky road. That there’s help out there. There’s hope out there. So I try to tell it as much as I can, to whoever will listen.
I think, in the back of my mind, I try to do it for my daughter and my sons to know that they have a strong mom who may have fallen down a couple of times in her past, but I want to be that role model for them to show that you never give up on life.
Des: Talk to me more about generational trauma. You touched on it briefly, but I want to know more about it.
Rayna: My grandmother was an alcoholic. She also dealt with the trauma of abuse, domestic violence, sexual assault, and rape. My mother dealt with it, as well. I dealt with it. I have a daughter and she’s fourteen, but I talk to her like she’s thirty. I’m not going to sugarcoat. I never sugarcoat it with my children because I want them to not be blindsided when it comes to something traumatic that will come into their life. I’ll show them how to deal with it.
It’s a chain you can break, as long as you educate your children and give them some of that foundation from your past so they won’t make the same mistake or go through the same journey you went through.
Des: Your kids know that you’ve attempted?
Rayna: They know I’ve attempted. I told them why. I didn’t lie. I let them know. I know you’re not supposed to say how the suicide attempt happens, but I let them know how I did it. I let them know why I did it and where I did it. I let them know that I was very sick after I did it.
I believe, at one point in time, my oldest did ask why: “Why didn’t you love us?” The thing is, I did love them. I thought I was doing them more justice and not being the burden of a mom who felt like she was crazy and that she was not doing anything correctly. I felt like scum for those seven years, not knowing what I was doing so wrong and horribly.
I told them, “You don’t have to take that road. Life is worth living. You can make it. You’re going to get struggles all through your life, but it’s about how you’re going to handle those struggles.”
So, yeah. I did tell them my children how [I attempted]. They don’t look me any different. I thought they would. I feel the more you hide and sweep things under the rug and use the “what happens in this house stays in this house” method, the [more] needs to be opened up. Everybody has skeletons in their closets, but you don’t have to keep them there.
Des: Secrets. I hate secrets.
Des: There’s a news story out right now about two parents who took their own lives. They left notes saying it was about healthcare, and they had two small children. A lot of the reaction to that is how terrible they were, how selfish they were, what bad parents they were.
Des: I’ve heard more than once from people who were parents when they attempted that they’ve gotten that criticism. What would you say to somebody with that criticism?
Rayna: Honestly, you never know until you’re in that person’s shoes. Do not judge. Nobody ever has the right to judge. I always joke and tell my husband, “Don’t judge me. Only Santa Claus can judge me.” The thing is, honestly, nobody knows until you’re in their shoes.
It’s the same question. “Why? Why? Why?” You never know, because they take it with them. Is it going to help you if you end up finding the why? Are you going to feel better?
People say bullying [caused] so-and-so to die by suicide. Not really. You don’t know until you get to hear the whole story behind what led up to that. In one of my classes, we had to talk about suicide. Everybody argued that it was the bullying that caused it. The bullying set that individual up. I’m like, “Well, how about trickle back to the story? What if something happened? What if they saw their dog get hit by a car? Maybe that triggered this. Never know. Maybe it did it. Maybe it didn’t.”
It’s like judging somebody without knowing the story. I’ll scoff at that too.
Des: Bullying is the go-to narrative right now, and it really pisses me off because it minimizes something that’s very complex.
Des: Yeah, I’m sure they were bullied. So what? What else?
Rayna: The thing is, like I said, I’m multi-race. I’m Native American, Hispanic, and black. I couldn’t fit in the Native side. I couldn’t fit in the Mexican side. I couldn’t fit in the black side. But the thing is, you get bullied from all three. You get bullied from anybody. It kind of thickens your skin because life will bully you altogether at the end. You got to learn how to take the punches.
Des: Do you feel like being multiracial contributed to your suicidality? If so, how? You talk about not feeling like you fit in.
Rayna: Not really. No. My mindset at the time of my two attempts was more from the historical trauma in my bloodline. It trickled down. Hopefully the help I’m getting my daughter to be able to talk to a counselor—a therapist—will be able to get out some of the aggression, or some of the sadness, or some of anything that’s going on within her. If I would have had those resources, that help, it would have probably helped a lot. A lot of it had to do with alcoholism, the domestic violence, the sexual assault. Everything in my past, it kind of trickled.
Des: Why can’t most people put themselves in the shoes of someone who is suicidal? Almost every belief system teaches that you should put yourself in someone else’s shoes so that you can understand what they’re going through but, for some reason, we can’t do it with suicide. What stops us from being able to empathize in that way?
Rayna: Honestly, [fear.] A fear like, “I thought about it and I’m ashamed that I’ve thought about it,” or maybe, “I’m ashamed because somebody in my family has done it or thought about it.” It’s like they can’t stick their foot in somebody else’s shoes because they’re battling their own demons within themselves.
Honestly, it’s just that fear. Stepping forward, speaking about it—it took a long time for me to actually admit that I was an inpatient. Why? Because I didn’t want that stigma of mental illness to be stuck on me. I didn’t want somebody to say, “Gosh, she’s batshit crazy.” I didn’t want that.
Then I was like, “I’m tired of hiding. I am who I am, and if you like it, then great. If you don’t, then you can shove off, because I’m at an age where being judged? I don’t care anymore.”