Rebecca Annwynis a suicide attempt survivor.
"I survived a suicide attempt."
Rebecca Annwyn is from Charlottesville, Virginia. She is a suicide prevention coordinator for the Virginia Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Services. She was 42 when I interviewed her in Charlottesville on September 15, 2016.
CONTENT WARNING: discussion of self-injury and suicide methods, graphic description of interpersonal violence
I’ve waited 22 years to tell my story of my suicide attempt.
It feels awkward at first. I mean, I’ve been thinking a lot about it before we met and decided it’s time. Especially working in the field that I do, and working in substance abuse prevention and suicide prevention for some years now. I feel very strongly that it’s time to step forward and say, “This has been part of my life too and it’s okay, and here I am, and we can help each other.”
I didn’t actually attempt suicide until after college. But, that’s not where everything started, and when some close friends asked me (after the attempt) why I did it, it’s still, to this day, really impossible to answer because it’s not simple. As you well know, it’s a mixture of so many things that happen in your life: your environment, your backgrounds, your family—everything that can influence your decisions.
For me, I’ve struggled with depression as long as I can remember, and I was thinking about times when I was six or seven years old, having real, serious moments of melancholy. A little kid shouldn’t feel that, you wouldn’t think. I just thought it was a character flaw. I grew up in a very rural area, so it wasn’t like I had a neighborhood filled with kids to play with. I had time to kind of stew over things. So, those early seeds of depression, they had that space to grow.
And then there’s a mix of everything else: a family history of depression, family history of substance abuse, and then getting into adolescent years and a parents’ divorce—you know, that, of course, has an effect on young people. I feel like such a case study.
Once I hit adolescence, it wasn’t so much the divorce that struck me as the situation changing. The relationships with the two parents changing, being physically with one parent or the other. My father was not a good influence. He did not have good coping skills at all. He suffered from alcoholism, so when I was with him on weekends, starting from when I was twelve years old, we hit the bars on Friday night. Back then, it was very easy to get away with it. I’d put on makeup, we’d sit at the bar, he would literally give me drinks before we’d go, like fuzzy navels—that was the little girl drink. He’d say, “Have this before we go out, honey.” Then you get to the bar and all of the “sympathetics” at the bar would slip you a rum and coke. Nobody knew.
When I started dealing with a deeper depression, about my junior year of high school, at that point I had already learned from my father, to some degree, the poor coping mechanism of drinking when you’re not happy. I found that I was drinking more by myself. For whatever reason, when I was younger, I thought that my dad walked on water, and all that was fine. It’s just the way it was. I don’t know why I felt that way. Looking back, it’s sad because we would wind up at some woman’s house at some late hour, and I’d be sleeping on somebody’s couch I didn’t know, just ’cause Dad picked her up. I guess it does have an effect on you and how you handle relationships when you’re a teenager. When I started dealing with boys, I had no idea what the hell I was doing. I was suffering more from my own parts of depression.
I spent a lot of weekends with Dad, but then, when I wasn’t with him and I was feeling really down, I’d try to find something to drink. As my depression got more intense in high school, if I couldn’t find something to drink, I’d cut. The cutting was not about suicide, for me. It was that I didn’t find something to drink. I didn’t find a way to refocus whatever misery it was that I was feeling. I couldn’t explain any of it. In fact, I very much tried to hide it. I tattooed myself—just a lot of different ways to cope without getting the real help I needed.
After college, when I started to go into the deepest depression that I’d had yet, it was a long time coming. When I look back at the journals from that time period (because I forgot a lot)—I mean, twenty-two years later, I’m going, “What the hell happened?” I’ve had to go back through the pages and say, “I can’t believe I actually wrote this, I actually felt this, I felt that miserable.” It’s like a different person talking. There were months where you could see the regression, you could see the way I wrote was darker and darker—just more pessimistic about my life, just more desperate feeling, more resentful, angry, any mix of emotions. I was dealing with a breakup, but also being out of school and not really finding me,what I expected to be, after school. I was having some financial troubles. But really, the depression is what kind of swallowed me whole.
There were about three weeks before I attempted when I was trying to do things that I thought would make me feel better. I was desperate for something to heal myself.
I went on a hike and I came to this spot. It was a pretty high cliff, and I thought, “I’m just gonna do this now and get it done.” And I nearly did, except that the thing that held me back was that I was afraid that I would just break an arm or just break a leg, and it wouldn’t work. I left so, so deeply sad, and then from that time on until my attempt, it was all about planning. Planning the real way I was going to do it. Tidying up all the affairs, you know, everything that you talk about, making sure that your loved ones would see everything in order afterwards.
I wrote a lot about how much I loved people and how much I didn’t want to burden them, and that I felt like they had their own problems, that I should be able to handle the anguish that I was feeling and that, for some reason, I couldn’t and I was a weak person because of it, and I deserved to die. The entries right up to the end, the last night, they were pretty rough. A lot of apologies to people.
I look back and I think, “Oh, if I could just go back in time and talk to myself about it…” I’d say, “This doesn’t have to be the answer,” but I wanted so badly to take control over this pain. I wanted so badly to take control of it.
I remember, because I was making sure everything was okay for everybody, I finished firing a kiln that I had been working on with a friend of mine—my studio partner. It’s late at night, I’m sitting out by the kiln watching it burn, which is something that I usually enjoyed, but I couldn’t enjoy anything. I kind of felt like, “This is the final time. I’m just making sure it’s done for my friends.”
I had my whole plan figured out for when I got home, when it was done. I remember writing that night about how I really couldn’t understand how anybody could handle the shit that life threw at them. I just didn’t understand how any of us could live through this. I really didn’t, and I felt sorry for everyone in the world, including myself.
I remember sitting there watching the kiln, and I had already started taking some of the pills that I planned on taking later. I knew it was gonna take a while to ingest everything. I found a piece of broken window and I just started cutting myself, but even then, that wasn’t part of the suicide plan. It wasn’t even, at that point, a way to try to make myself feel better. It was just, “You deserve this.” That’s the way I was feeling at that time.
I wound up getting back to my apartment, and I think the main thing out of the overdose that I think is really important for people to know is that, for me, it was not glamorous. It was not quiet. It was not comfortable. It was self-poisoning that puts on a whole different feel, because your physical body is fighting you and what you’re trying to do to it. It’s terrifying, it’s awful, it’s painful and, for me, it felt like I had an anvil on my chest. It was kind of surprising. I was surprised that my body fought that hard. I just kept thinking, “Well, we’ll see if this works. I don’t know.”
The fact that I got through that, I figured out later, was pretty amazing. Years down the road, I was sitting with a calculator, trying to figure out how much medication I had taken to my body weight and everything else, thinking, “I really should be dead. I don’t know how I’m alive and I’m grateful that I am.”
The next surprise for me was how long recovery takes. You would expect that the mental recovery would be long, but the physical recovery, for me, also took about a year. I had really burnt the lining in my esophagus pretty badly. Because of the medicine I took, I had a lot of upper respiratory issues for the next year. I could barely hold a part-time job. I was sick all the time. I don’t know why they didn’t fire me, but I got through it. It took me going to a counselor constantly, seeing my physician constantly, being medicated, finding the right balance with the antidepressant, long visits to the beach, thinking about what made me feel good, even if it was just for a moment. And even then, things weren’t great.
It’s not like life instantly gets better just because you decide to be here. It was rough.
I had challenges at that time period, within that year. I think, when you’re emotionally in a rough spot, you can be more vulnerable, too. I wound up dealing with some things that maybe I wouldn’t have if I had been stronger—one thing being an acquaintance rape during that time period. It was boss at work, so it wasn’t easy, but I got through it. I think what’s important in that recovery time was that, somehow, I made the decision that I didwant to live, that I really did want to try, regardless of the other stuff that was going on or how hard it was. I also recognized that I needed to reach out to people and not hide things so much. I didn’t need to be the underwater swimmer. That was good.
I constantly lived in fear of depression from that point on, like, “Please don’t ever creep back up on me like that, because you’re a nasty, nasty disease and I don’t want you in my life, and I will fight you.” There were certainly circumstances in my life that made things harder, where depression tried to creep in and luckily I didn’t succumb. Somehow I got through.
When I married a man much later, I was with him for about five years and I really loved him a lot. We decided to move to Albuquerque and we were doing pretty well, but we wound up having a pretty bad real estate deal out there and lost the house, lost our money, our nest egg.
He and I started having a lot of difficulties.Albuquerque was a nightmare, and our marriage had already started to dwindle. I don’t know exactly what was going on that spurred our move all the way out west in the first place. It’s like we needed something to change drastically, and it sure did. We were having issues at home. He was being a lot more verbally abusive, which kind of shocked me. It was over a period of maybe six months. It just started to increase. When things went down in Albuquerque, with this house deal, neither of us handled it well, but he had a really hard time handling it.
Whatever was going on with him, somehow it provoked him to be physically violent with me. It scared me so bad. I was so shocked and disappointed and angry, all at the same time, because I really loved this person.
I’ll never forget the night, it was kind of like the turning point night, where I was stuck in this chair. It had two arms on it, and he’d been… okay, well, there was a lot, actually, that had gone on earlier than this. We were driving down from the Sandia Mountains on the highway, and he tried to grab the steering wheel and brought us off the highway. So I already had a heads up, like, “Things aren’t good. Tonight’s a bad night, it’s gonna be a bad night,” but I had no idea he was gonna be violent with me at home. I wound up being stuck in this chair that had two arms on it. He came over, dumped a glass of water on my head, and then just started choking me. I remember, that was the moment of feeling really pissed off, super disappointed, and just… definitely panicked. I held onto the chair and I just kicked him off of me as hard as I could, like more strength than I ever thought I could have.
I realized, at that moment, I was mad because I was saying in my head over and over, “I want to live. I already made that decision a long time ago. I had that time period where I questioned it, and no way in hell are you gonna take this from me.” I was just so mad. At that point in time, I really knew. And I was able to get out of that relationship, but it had to be a very carefully planned move. It wasn’t instantaneous, either. It was over a couple of months and I moved literally back to Virginia, across the country again. But that’s one of those moments that is important to me and my story of suicide, because it was this moment of realization that no one should ever take control of what happens to my body or my life, including myself. I was just that determined.
Before I went back to Virginia, I somehow managed to get our vehicle. I didn’t even have shoes on. I just got in the vehicle on Christmas morning before anything else bad happened, two months after the first initial attack. I drove all the way to Ocala, Florida, where my parents live. I just drove and said, “That’s it, I’m gonna live. I’m not gonna live like that. I’m not gonna be hurt anymore. I won’t let him kill me.”
I remember sitting at my mother’s computer for a while, over a period of a couple weeks, just trying to figure out, “Where am I going? Where am I gonna go settle back down?”
Okay, so this is where it’s kind of cool. This is the happy, helpful part. This is the interesting stuff. I’m sitting down in Ocala at my mom’s computer and I’m just on the internet looking, just trying to figure out: am I gonna resettle in Ocala near my parents? I don’t want to do that.
Des: What year was this?
Rebecca: 2007. I kept going back to Rockbridge County, where we had been living together before. Where we had sold our house to make our big dreams out west.
I kept going back to their historical society web page because I’m a history buff, too. On their homepage, they were featuring an adult-sized cradle, and I was so fascinated. The story was about a woman named Mary Moore who, in the 1700s, lived in Rockbridge, and she was abducted by the Shawnee during a raid on their farm when she was just a young teenager. She was moved and sold, actually, into slavery in Canada years later. So, all the way from Virginia, she moved with the Shawnee up north to Canada. The weird thing is, they found her eventually. The family looked to find where she might have gone, and found out what trader she had gone through in Canada. They brought her back to Rockbridge, but you can imagine what a mess she was, coming back in her early twenties, after this had happened to her. Back in those days, we had no idea what Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder was. Their way of dealing with it was to have the local carpenter make her a cradle so that she could be rocked to sleep at night, because she suffered from such terrible nightmares of the things that had happened to her on her route.
I remember showing this to my mother—it’s on display at the Rockbridge Historical Society—and I said, “Mom, this is so cool. They knew what to do for this woman. They didn’t know what to call it, but they knew she had been through hell, and the community took care of her.” She wound up marrying a Presbyterian minister in that area and settling down and having a family. Mom was looking at the site with me and I said, “You know, I feel like I want to go back to a compassionate community,” so that made my decision for me. I went back to Rockbridge.
Through friends and acquaintances, I wound up renting an old cabin, and it was part of a very large farm that had been around since the dawn of time. It was part of the original land grant for that area.
My landlady, she lived in London most of the time, but she would come back to this Virginia house occasionally to check up on things. I moved in in January and, in May, she came back to visit. She had me up for a dinner party at the “big house,” you know, ’cause I’m in the little farmer’s cabin which was very, very quaint. I loved it, by the way. It was like my little cave. We sat there talking that night, and she told a story of how every first born female in her family had been named Mary Moore in honor of Mary Moore, the original woman who’d had the cradle made for her. That, to honor her memory, her family had passed on that name. My landlady’s name was Mary Moore Mason.
I can tell you, I was so shocked and so floored at the coincidence, because I had told her nothing of looking to come back to Virginia or how fascinated I was by the cradle in town. Turned out, I was living in their cabin.
Des: I don’t know that it can get better than that.
Rebecca: I remember that night after the dinner party—and these are such wonderful blue hairs, the local blue hair set—I remember going back to the cabin that night, laying on the floor, staring at the ceiling going, “I cannot believe life sometimes. How am I in this cabin, of all places?” I remember distinctly thinking, “This is what true hope feels like,” and I remember being so grateful that night that I was alive, in that cabin. That’s when I got my first job in prevention and started moving forward on this track. And I’ve never looked back.
I have a five-year-old daughter. She’s, of course, my new inspiration for life. Five and a half. The other morning, she comes to me—and by the way, this is in the bathroom in the morning getting ready for school, doing all these things that you do to get ready—and she says, “Mommy, come sit down. Come sit down on the floor.” We’re literally on the bath mat in the bathroom, and she says, “Can you sit for me criss-cross applesauce?”
I’m like, “Uh, okay, what’s she gonna tell me? What is this? Some giant thing she’s gonna lay on me,” right?
She took this deep breath and she said, “I know I’ve tried to explain this to you before, but I just really want you to understand how glad I am to be alive.” She said, “You know, like, how glad I am to be a person, that I can run and play and jump around and do all these things, and that I can talk to you, and I don’t even know if you’re real, but I’m a person and I’m here and I’m alive, and it makes me really happy.”
I just sat there staring at my five-and-a-half-year-old on the bathroom mat going, “Thisis why I’m alive.” The end. That’s it.
She totally freaked me out with that.
Des: I’d be freaked out too. But in the best way.
Rebecca: So that’s why there’s hope—for me, for others—and I want to keep helping others. I want to reduce the stigma about attempt survivors.
Des: I want to know more about your decision to go into this field, and how it felt being an attempt survivor and not talking about it until now.
Rebecca: It’s been a very shameful subject. I’ve been very afraid to let people know.
Des: What changed?
Rebecca: I started reading more and more about self-disclosure and how we could do it safely. I’m not a clinician, I’m a prevention specialist—that also helps. But I’ve been embarrassed about it for years. I still watch for people’s reactions, you know? Like, “Oh god, what are they gonna think now? Anything that I said before now is totally debunked, because now it’s out in the open.” Ultimately, I’m finding more support than I am that standoffishness.
Des: It’s weird, right?
Rebecca: It is weird. It is.
Des: Something changed.You didn’t say what got you there.
Rebecca: Oh, yeah! So, I start working for Carilion Hospital System, working in prevention there… I’m sitting here doing blood pressure checks with people in a factory environment for a health fair. I have a mental health booth set up because, despite all of my superiors at the hospital, I think mental health is also important. So, I have my board up, and next thing you know, I’m looking at the reading and it’s going through the roof, and they’re telling me about how terrible they feel inside.
Des: You’re the bartender!
Rebecca: Yeah! That’s what happened when I worked for a hospital. I realized that prevention must be about whole wellness or nothing. It has to encompass everything about you.
When I was suicidal, I stopped taking care of myself completely. I wore the same clothes. I didn’t care. What did I care about my body, or my health, or what I ingested, or what my blood pressure was, for god’s sake?
I started getting more and more involved in the behavioral health side of it, and that’s when I got certified as a suicide and substance abuse prevention specialist.
I feel like I am really lucky in my personal life not to have had a substance abuse problem, in addition to the depression, because it would have been even harder, doubly hard to recover from the attempt. That’s hard, watching people drowning in booze and suicidal. That’s hard.
Given the experience that I’ve had with my father, I’m really glad that wasn’t the road that I ventured down. And I have to keep a close eye on that. It’s also really good that I didn’t know some things that I know now. When I was a teenager, there was a period of time where my dad was really heavy in prescription meds. I knew things weren’t right and I knew they weren’t fun for us, but I didn’t understand that it was because of him abusing meds. Now that I look back, I go, “Oh, well it’s pretty obvious, now that he’s admitted it to me,” but if I had known at the time, would I maybe have gone towards that to self-medicate if I knew that my dad did? I’m glad that I didn’t know. I’m grateful for some things, too, that didn’t happen.
Des: Tell me if suicide is still an option for you.
Becky: I’m afraid of it. I can’t say… because we don’t know what life’s gonna throw at us and how strong we’re gonna be at any given time. I want to believe that I will say no. That I will be able to get the help I need and that I’ll be more willing to reach out, if that happens, if it comes to that. But I am scared of it.
Rebecca’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 Jess Lange for providing the transcription to Rebecca’s interview.