Shelby Roweis a suicide attempt survivor.
"I Survived a Suicide Attempt."
Shelby Rowe works in suicide prevention. She is originally from Tulsa, OK. She was 43 years old when I interviewed her in New York, NY, on July 8, 2016.
I’ll tell a little bit of my background, but mostly focus on 2010, which was the best and absolute worst year of my life ever.
The first time that I ever had thoughts of suicide, I was fifteen years old. I had gone to spend a week with a very close family member during the summer, and she died while I was there. I wasn’t coping very well with the loss. Unfortunately, because I would look people in the eye and smile, still get good grades, and I was really articulate about describing that I felt awful, no one really gathered just how bad it was.
I remember just feeling horrible. I was having nightmares that this loved one came back to me after she died, which is horrible. I felt guilty that she had died. I felt like it was my fault, and I told a teacher at school. At the time, I was writing poetry about what people would do if I wasn’t around, and handing them in.
Finally, my English teacher was like, “I’m concerned about you.”
I was like, “Thank you for being concerned about me.”
I had talked to my parents, but again, they just weren’t engaging because I’m not good at acting like I’m in pain. No one was really registering how bad it was.
My teacher talked to me and encouraged me to go home and talk to my mom. She told me that everything would be better. I was like, “No, she won’t understand.”
She said, “Oh, she will.”
I went home and worked up the courage to talk to my mom. Finally, when it was about five minutes before my stepdad was going to come home, I was like, “Mom, can I please go to counseling?”
She goes, “What? What for?”
I was like, “I’m not okay. I really think I need to go to counseling. I’m not okay. I’m not even sure I want to live anymore.”
She just kind of looked at me and was like, “Oh, suck it up. You don’t have any real problems.”
In my fifteen-year-old mind, I had made this dramatic appeal for help, which was a whole one sentence, but it was all I could muster.
I got up and went to my room. I was just devastated. I was planning out how I would end my life that night because I didn’t know what else to do. In my fifteen-year-old mind, I had made this dramatic appeal for help, which was a whole one sentence, but it was all I could muster. It was like, “That’s it. If I can’t get help, I don’t know what to do.” My friendships were suffering because I had been a mess that year, so all of my strong friendships were kind of weakened. It was like, “Okay, I’m going to kill myself.”
I planned it all out. Before I implemented it, I was sitting there thinking, “Wait.” Really, I was desperate for help. It was like I didn’t know how to live through the pain. I didn’t necessarily want to die, but I didn’t see any way of surviving that level of emotional pain another day.
I sat there and thought, “Wait, I’m going to die and no one’s going to care. Nothing’s going to change.” So it was like, “Damn it, I’m not dying today. People should care about me. I need to find a better way to do this.”
I didn’t get any help. I was still a straight A student, a math tutor, and I had three jobs. I had the highest SAT score in my high school and was still making really poor decisions because I just wasn’t okay. I ended up finding out I was pregnant the day before my senior prom, which took my life in a different direction. I got married, because that’s what you do when you live in Oklahoma and you get pregnant as a teenager: you try to do what’s best.
It was a horrible, horrible marriage. Very abusive. He was very much into drugs and alcohol. There came a point where I would go in the other room to hide whenever we had company because I thought I was too stupid or ugly for anyone to look at or talk to. Mind you, I was going to a private university with a scholarship, but in my mind, I was totally worthless because my family was very upset with me about getting pregnant. I was estranged from my family. All my friends had moved away to go to college. I was stuck with this person who told me every day what a horrible failure I was.
I went through a phase then of being suicidal. I made my first suicide attempt during that marriage. I survived, thank goodness, but I wasn’t okay.
A week before my second son was born, my mother-in-law helped me get into a domestic violence shelter. I went to stay at the shelter. It was so eye opening because, I think with suicide and domestic violence, you think, “Not me. It happens to thosepeople. Those people go through that. Not me,” and I was there, realizing that it was all people.
I was there for two weeks. I went and stayed with my grandmother, and was going to counseling. I was finally getting some help processing the death from when I was a teen.
Six weeks after my second child was born was the first night in my brand-new apartment, all by myself with my two little babies, and my husband was killed in an accidental shooting. Thank god I was in therapy, because I wasn’t okay.
It stirred up so many things that, over the next couple months, I got diagnosed with PTSD. I wasn’t sleeping. I couldn’t really eat. I would go to the therapist and say, “I live in a small apartment. I took off my jewelry after the funeral. I can’t find it. I can’t remember where I put anything, but I remember every friend I had when I was three and what their house smelled like.” I had vivid memories of when I was much younger. I had been sexually abused.
I remember asking [my therapist] at the time, “Can you hospitalize me? Because I don’t think I’m okay.”
She said, “No, the fact that you know you’re not okay… I think if you thought you were fine, I would probably hospitalize you. But the fact that you’re aware that you’re not okay, just come see me every day and we’ll get through this.” She was great and she helped me. I did individual therapy and group therapy.
I thought I was fixed, thought I was well. I went on with my life and built a great life. I graduated from college. I remarried. I had a good career, I was the PTA president, I was a baseball team mom. I thought, “I’ve overcome all of that and ended up moving to Arkansas. This is great. Nobody knows my past. Nobody knows anything that happened. No one’s saying, “Oh, Shelby, you’re doing really well for a teen mom. You’re doing really well.”” Handicapping my success. I didn’t tell people anything about that, and I thought, “I’ll be good.”
I worked in public health. I ended up being the director of our statewide suicide hotline in Arkansas. I had my staff, trained them, and it was what I did. I talked coping skills. I trained everyone. I helped us get accredited and was a leader. I was a suicide prevention leader in the state.
In 2010, I wrote our state plan for suicide prevention. I brought together the first statewide suicide prevention coalition. People were like, “Oh, they’ll never do it.” People drove four hours to be at this meeting where we had over one hundred people from around the state saying, “Yes, we want to make a difference in suicide prevention.” I thought everything was awesome. Everything was great.
Then we had a scary crisis. My older two children, I’m extremely protective of them because I’m their only parent. Because of all the trauma when they were little—their dad dying and everything we went through—I’m really protective of them. One of them had a pretty serious mental health crisis.
I’d never been worried at all that they would die until that time. That, mentally, had me really vulnerable. I thought, “What if something happens? What if one of them dies?” It was starting to bring back all of the old fear and panic feelings.
Right after that, I found out my husband was having an affair. It was a really bad Jerry Springer thing. He was dating a nineteen-year-old girl who had dated one of my sons and was a family friend. Two people who I love dearly betrayed me, and then I had these three teenage sons.
It was like, “Must get out of the house now.” The sudden leaving the house really fast and other things mentally triggered my PTSD. I was in such denial and so ashamed because I thought, “No, I’m good. I’m well. I’m fixed.”
I went and did a training the day after my divorce was final.I did a two-day training for educators on suicide prevention. I wanted to do things and continued to do my work. I did pull myself off of the crisis hotline because I knew I just wasn’t equipped. I’d always talked to my staff, saying, “That is your tool you bring to work. If you’re emotionally vulnerable, out of responsibility to the callers, you need to make us aware so other people in the team can fill in. If you were a lifeguard and you had broken ribs, you would tell everyone else. You would pull yourself off duty because you’re not in a position to help anyone else.” I pulled myself off the line, but I was doing my best to try to maintain all the other duties.
It created a really toxic environment with my staff because my staff, who were focused on taking care of everyone in the state, now felt they had to take care of me, which wasn’t working well. I was trying to keep up. I started going to counseling. I told my board. My board was really good. I was like, “As long as I’m doing these steps, please let me stay. Don’t send me home. This is my only purpose right now. Don’t take away my only purpose. I will do the admin stuff. I will go and train. I can’t be on the lines, but I will do everything else.” But for my staff who did the hotline who were so used to be me being their leader, it just wasn’t good.
I had a friend who knew me when my first husband died, and they could tell by things I was posting on Facebook that I wasn’t okay. I started spending a lot of time with that friend. It was good because I didn’t have to explain why I was more freaked out. They understood. They knew.
One day, they were like, “I’m going to take you and teach you how to shoot a gun.” They knew I was terrified of guns because my first husband was killed in an accidental shooting. We went and I had my headphones and my goggles. I was terrified. I was shaking. Then I did it and I was so proud of myself. I overcame that.
It was like, “Okay, I still never want to be around them, but I can do that. I can hold a gun. I can fire it. I can do this.”
I put some pictures on Facebook of that because I was really proud of that moment, and an employee of mine who didn’t know anything about my past forwarded it to my board. I ended up taking her to lunch and explaining. I said, “Let me tell you what that picture means to me.”
She was like, “Oh, I’m really sorry.”
By then, I’ve already got meetings with the board. It was just a mess. Professionally, things were bad. Personally, things were bad.
I had this weird fear, and because of my PTSD, I didn’t want to tell anyone. I kept thinking if I stopped talking to my ex-husband, that either he would die or I would die. So I just kept myself exposed to this pain, touching base with this person who didn’t want to be with me anymore.
I had this weird fear, and because of my PTSD, I didn’t want to tell anyone. I kept thinking if I stopped talking to my ex-husband, that either he would die or I would die. So I just kept myself exposed to this pain, touching base with this person who didn’t want to be with me anymore. But I couldn’t let go of that relationship because I’d had a big fight with my first husband thirty minutes before he died. I was like, “I hate you, I never want to see you again.” So, even though everything in me would have liked to tell this current ex-husband, “I hate you, I never want to see you again,” I couldn’t. I couldn’t separate; otherwise, something bad would happen. It seemed totally irrational and I told no one. I was just dealing with this, and dealing with everyone wondering why I wasn’t okay.
I ended up hospitalizing myself in September. I was still contacting him, and he was like, “You know, I made a big mistake. I love you. Let’s get back together.”
I was like, “Okay.” I had big plans for the weekend, and I thought, “I will cancel my plans. I’ll spend the weekend with you.”
Two days into the weekend, he was like, “I’m sorry I ruined your vacation. I can’t do this. I can’t be with you.” Of course he could have told me that when we were thirty minutes from my house, but he told me that four hours from my house. It was the worst four-hour drive to get me home.
I was like, “I’m not okay. You can sleep on the couch. Just please don’t leave me alone. The boys are gone. Don’t leave me alone. I’m not okay. Just stay. You can go home in the morning. Just please, if you love me at all, just stay tonight. I’m not okay.”
We got home. I took a shower. I came out of the shower, and he was gone. I was a wreck and I cried all day. I’m one of those people who, usually the next day when I wake up, I take a shower, eat breakfast, and I’m okay. And I wasn’t.
All I could think about was, “I have to die before my kids come home.” I couldn’t survive. I couldn’t make it through another rejection.
I started thinking. I was like, “Okay, let me do the assessment I do with my callers. When was the last time you ate? When did you sleep?” Those things. I asked myself, “How long do you think you can keep yourself safe?”
I was just like, “I need to go to the hospital.” I called a hospital in the next state. My ego wouldn’t let me go in Arkansas because I had trained so many people. I couldn’t go be a patient in places where I had trained people.
I went to Oklahoma. I was there for a week. They were doing my intake appointment, and there was a student psychiatrist. They did fine on my intake, but when I was in the hospital, during my first meeting with the psychiatrist, they were like, “Have you ever been diagnosed with a mental health condition?”
I said, “Well, I’ve been diagnosed with PTSD.”
They said, “Why do you have PTSD?”
I said, “Well…” I’d tried to keep from telling anyone for years anything about what happened in the past. I said, “Well, my first husband was killed in an accidental shooting.”
He stopped me and said, “Did you witness it?”
I said, “No, I didn’t witness it.”
Then they said, “Then you probably don’t have PTSD.”
I was quiet because I really didn’t want to talk about the other stuff anyway. I just knew I needed help and I wasn’t okay. I didn’t tell my therapist that I had PTSD, so everything when I was in the hospital was focused on getting over a breakup. They medicated me, so now I had sleeping pills, Xanax, and an anti-depressant.
I got home, was there for a week, and then, of course, all of my friends, family, and staff are like, “You’re all better now, right? Right? You’re fine now, right?”
I had my big hospital bill that I felt guilty about. Even with insurance, it was like a car payment for another year and a half. This is money I spent on my sanity. I couldn’t invest in my children or anything else, because there was something wrong with me. Sadly, at that point, I was like, “I’m not going back to the hospital because I can’t afford any more care.”
I went to my first appointment with my outpatient psychiatrist, and it was my former boss’s daughter, even in another state. So I said, “You know, I’m good. Thanks.”
Six weeks later, the day before Thanksgiving, I was in a really dark place. I had taken a friend to lunch that day, and I was like, “I’m not okay.” I couldn’t tell her, “I’m thinking about killing myself.” I danced all around it, and she had been trained.
I always teach people, “Ask them. If you have the feeling in your gut, just ask, because it’s so hard to tell.” I thought, “Well, if I’m at risk, I will tell,” and I couldn’t. I don’t think I could now. It is so hard when you’re in so much pain and fear and shame. I need you to ask me. We danced around it.
She was like, “Yeah, that sucks.”
I said, “You’re right. It sucks. It’ll get better. See you next week.”
I went home, drank a bottle of wine, and was crying. I looked myself in the mirror and said, “Hope I never see you again.” I took all the pills I had in my cabinet and crawled into my bed.
Two days later, I woke up. My phone had been ringing off the wall. It was the day before Thanksgiving, so my kids went on to families’ houses. They said, “We couldn’t wake you up, so we just went. You were saying that you had a migraine; we just went.”
They came home, and I was like, “Why didn’t you call the hospital?”
They said, “Well, we didn’t want you to get fired.”
They were trying to protect me. Thank god, I survived. They were trying to protect me because I had worked so hard to protect my job and my professional image that it almost cost me my life. I was like, “I’ve got to make big changes.” I made plans to leave the crisis center.
I went to lunch with my dad a couple days later. I didn’t want to see him. We have not had the normal father-daughter relationship, due to a lot of things. Mainly because he was in the Vietnam War, came home, and didn’t think he deserved a family. We go back and forth, always wanting that. I think the more that my sister and I tried to prove we were good enough for him to love and hang out with, the more it magnified his guilt that he didn’t deserve a family.
He came to see me, and we were talking. He was like, “You’ve got to change jobs.”
I’m like, “Yeah, I do. I’ve got to find something that I love doing, that makes me feel good.” But I really liked suicide prevention—the resiliency, how strong people are, and what people overcome.
Listening to all of these people on the suicide hotline, I knew that most people don’t want to die. I was at the crisis center for four years. I read the notes on any suicide call and took several myself. There were only two people in the four years who really wanted to die, and they were both in their eighties in hospice care with terminal illnesses. Everyone else needed to escape the pain.
I was like, “I need to set up something where I’m away from that pain.”
[My dad] gave me a big hug when he left and said, “I’ve missed you my whole life. I never want to miss you again.”
The next day, I woke up and I was like, “Okay, what am I going to do with the rest of my life?” I decided I wanted to help soldiers. Being around my horses always helped me feel better. I thought I would set up a ranch and help soldiers with PTSD. I had sold my favorite horse about two weeks before my attempt because I thought he deserved a better home than I could provide him—I wasn’t good enough for him anymore and he needed a better owner. I thought, “You know, there are soldiers who have to sell their horses when they get deployed and that’s sad. If their horses mean as much to them as mine meant to me, they shouldn’t have to. I’ll take care of horses that belong to soldiers who are deployed. I’ll recruit other soldiers with PTSD to come and help.”
I set everything up. I did that for about a year and a half. There was a horrible drought. I went totally broke. Had I been smarter and not needed it so bad, I would have fundraised for about five years before I started. But we had a terrible drought when I was getting all my paperwork done to be a contractor with the VA. It’s a long process.
If I could just keep my project alive… but I couldn’t. I had three months in a row where I could either feed the horses or pay my mortgage. I fed the horses. I found a renter for my farm and I moved.
The cool thing was, the community I wanted to build for my soldiers who I was going to be helping, I built for myself by reaching out to other people. I had built it without ever having to tell my support system, “Hey, I’m at risk for suicide.” I didn’t have to tell anyone. I just needed to be connected.
That’s what I did. The loss of my farm and selling away my horses… it was okay because I had a really strong support system that I had built up around me. I remember walking around my farm and thinking, “Some people have a heart attack, some people have a stroke, and they’ve got to make lifestyle changes to be okay. I have PTSD and this last episode almost killed me, so I need to make some lifestyle changes so that I’m ready for the next episode if it ever happens.”
I’m trying to be better about talking about my feelings, which I hate doing.
I’m trying to be better about talking about my feelings, which I hate doing. I don’t like being vulnerable at all, but I know that if I’m not vulnerable, if no one in my life knows my struggles, no one can help me.
That’s why I do stuff like this. I need it. I need those connections. It helps because there’s so many people. There’s never been a time where I told my story that I have not had several people come up and say, “Now it’s okay for me to tell my story. I’ve been scared. I just watched you tell your story and no one in the room judged you, so I will probably be safe telling mine.”
I had a really close friend who, after my attempt, didn’t talk to me for about six months. She was furious with me and said some really hateful things. After having the conversation, I came to the realization that someone had just tried to kill her best friend. She was furious. I can understand that. She was like, “I can understand, but I have to reconcile.”
After she and I made up, I ended up sitting and writing myself a long apology letter, to apologize for being so impatient with myself or getting so frustrated with myself for not being okay.I just tried to be as kind to me as I am to other people. It’s been six years. Going good, and hopefully another fifty-six years.
There’s my story.
Des: You want to live to be one hundred.
Shelby: There’s the base. In my family, you either die of cancer young or you live forever and ever.
What else do you want to know? I can talk for days, but you probably don’t want me to.
Des: Talk to me about how dangerous communities of suicide attempt survivors are.
Des: I don’t know if you could roll your eyes farther. They’re going to fall right out of your head.
Shelby: The thing that’s really troubling, and why I stayed quiet for a long time while still working in the field, is that there’s this perception that, if you have attempted suicide, then you’re a ticking time bomb. You are perpetually fragile. If anyone looks at you weird, oh my gosh, you’re just going to go. They see you as a liability, and it’s so contradictory, because everything I do in my career is doing things to encourage help-seeking behavior.
I teach people to reach out for help early. If you have depression, anxiety, sleeplessness, get help then. It’s like a woman with breast cancer. If you wait till there’s a tumor the size of a grapefruit on your breast before you ever go to the doctor, you’re going to die. But if you go early…
I teach people it’s okay. Yet, on the flipside, the world that we live in, when you tell people, “Hey, I need help. Hey, I’m an attempt survivor,” people freak out. They judge you—not just a little bit, but forever. I didn’t tell people because I didn’t want my professionalism questioned.
People always assume I got into suicide prevention because of me, and it’s like, “No, I was in public health.” I did teen pregnancy prevention, substance abuse prevention, violence prevention, and all kinds of stuff. I moved to Arkansas and there was a job in suicide prevention. That’s why I took it. There wasn’t a job in ‘everything’ prevention.
I was a little scared of the hotline, but after my first few calls, I fell in love with wanting to help these people. The system was so broken around them. You could spend an hour convincing someone that they were in a medical emergency and it was okay to go get help, then they would show up and get treated horribly, almost as if they were a terrorist, in my mind.
Even with the language that is changing now, it’d be like, “They’re threateningsuicide.” No. They’re asking for help. You don’t see someone “threatening” to have a heart attack. It’s perceived as if it’s a conscious thing, but when you’re at that point of excruciating pain, that part of your brain shuts off. No one makes good decisions when they’re in a lot of pain.
I heard one speaker on depression and they were like, “You don’t suffer pretty. No one suffers pretty.”
In a suicidal crisis, you’re in excruciating pain. You’re stuck in that fight, flight, or freeze. Predominantly, for me, it’s the freeze. Just not able to get help and needing other people to recognize and remove that baggage and judgment, even within the field.
It’s coming a long way, but even within the field, we still don’t trust suicide attempt survivors to talk to one another because people are scared. It’s all of the old myths that everyone says they don’t believe, but it’s so ingrained that they do. They say, “Talking about suicide doesn’t cause it,” but it’s almost as if they have a little caveat: unless you struggled before, in which case, this is really dangerous.
They say, “Talking about suicide doesn’t cause it,” but it’s almost as if they have a little caveat: unless you struggled before, in which case, this is really dangerous.
I’ve challenged some of the leaders in our field. I’m like, “If I had survived a heart attack, you guys would not follow me around with a heart defibrillator all the time.” I’m really fortunate that my PTSD is tied to a really traumatic life event. It takes another traumatic life event to trigger it, but that could be tomorrow. Someone could call me. One of my children could be killed tomorrow so, mentally, I have to be ready. But I went from nineteen years old to thirty-eight years old with no issue whatsoever.
I’m pretty good at coping with everyday stuff. Then, once someone knows I’m an attempt survivor, they’re like, “Oh, are you seeing a therapist?”
I’m like, “No, I’m pretty good.” I did when I moved here because I got asked that a lot. I thought, “Okay, I will go find me a therapist.” I looked and I [found] someone who had done their residency at a VA hospital dealing with people with PTSD and trauma. I went, and he was a very nice man, but I could tell I kind of scared him a little bit because I trained mental health professionals on how to do this. I’d say, “You should go to this training. I’m trained in this and that. Oh, by the way, I’m speaking at this National Suicide Prevention conference to therapists next week. Sorry you can’t make it.”
But I went and I explained different things. I started to realize and catch myself. I thought, “If I need him to tell me I’m okay, then I’m internalizing that fragile thing.”
I was like, “You know, I’ve built good rapport with you. If anything comes up and I’m not okay, I know that you know enough of my past that if I came in, you would know to talk to me about that stuff. I don’t feel the need to go see you on a weekly basis. I like knowing that you’re there, but I’m to the point now where I’m brainstorming, trying to figure out what to talk to you about because I really don’t have any real issues. I’m good.”
[I don’t have any real issues] other than not being very vulnerable, but that’s a lot of people. I have a lot of people in my life who love me. I don’t know if I’ll ever have another romantic relationship. I really don’t trust myself with those ending, and I have lots of other love in my life. I feel okay.
But assuming that, because I’m an attempt survivor, I need constant care and supervision from a mental health professional is annoying. It doesn’t mean that suicide attempt survivors don’t need help, but there’s no one-size-fits-all. I’ve found what works for me. Until it’s demonstrating it’s not working for me, please don’t question that. I don’t monitor other people’s diets. I don’t look around at other people’s desks and go, “Hey, I know you’ve got Type II diabetes, why are you eating that cupcake?”
Trust me to be a competent adult and take care of myself until proven otherwise.
Des: I can’t remember when, but someone brought up the fact that it seems like a lot of people who work in suicide prevention have been dying by suicide lately. Do you notice that?
Shelby: I haven’t. Honestly, I haven’t. But, to me, we wouldn’t have this conversation at all if people who worked for the American Heart Association had heart attacks. It would be such a non-issue. I always question that.
Just because we work in the field doesn’t mean that we’re immune. We can’t, out of one side of our mouth, say it is an equal opportunity—that suicide can affect everyone—and then, when it does, instantly revert back to the old superstitions that it was a character flaw, a moral failing, or something wrong with our field in general. Let’s not even go there.
Sadly, there are people who die by suicide, and it’s still hard to reach out for help. It doesn’t matter what profession they’re in. It’s still hard for people. Just because you’re working in the field of suicide prevention doesn’t make that process any easier. It’s still hard.
From someone who made an attempt as a director of a suicide hotline, what you know intellectually goes out the window when you’re in that much pain.
From someone who made an attempt as a director of a suicide hotline, what you know intellectually goes out the window when you’re in that much pain.
For me, and I hope anyone else, I’ve found people within suicide prevention who I feel safe with. I hope I’m never in a crisis like that again. But if I am, I really am going to count on these people to put their money where their mouth is, so to speak, because I trust them to be kind, caring, compassionate people, and to step in and help me when I am incapable of helping myself.
Des: It’s so true and tragic. It’s sad to me because it’s just like… fuck, we have more resources than anybody else.
Shelby: Brain surgeons die of brain cancer and it’s tragic. It’s horrible.
Des: Is suicide still an option for you?
Shelby: No. Of course, if you would have asked me before the last crisis, I would have said no. I hope I’m never in that crisis again. I hope I’m never in that place. I hope I’m never in that much pain again. So, no. It never was a logical option. It was a moment of excruciating pain that I didn’t know how to survive.
Des: Just a moment.
Shelby: It was a long period, but that moment right before my attempt was the moment where I was like, “I can’t. I can’t live through this.” I really had been, for months, going, “I can’t live like this. I can’t live like this anymore, trying to keep everything up. I can’t live like this anymore.”
When I woke up after my attempt, my inner spirit was such a smart ass. It was like, “So don’t. Let’s live a different life. I can do that. I can live a different way.” I had been so focused on getting through that pain that I didn’t see that there were so many other options. It was like, “Oh, if I wanted to, I could sell everything. I could go sell t-shirts on the beach somewhere. And that’s better than dying, so that’s a viable option.” Everything was on the table. It was a lot of freedom to release and go, “Oh, I don’t have to carry that burden anymore.” I had worked so hard to keep everything together, it hadn’t dawned on me in months that I didn’t have to keep everything together. I could drop it all and start over doing something else.
Shelby: I really do wish that they could just do a blood test and be like, “Okay, you’re at a thirty-four,” like you can do people with cancer. Do a blood test. Do a body scan, say, “Okay, this is where you’re at. This is what we’re treating.” But they’re just not there yet.
For depression, when does it cross the line to an illness? Nobody knows. Nobody can tell you when it is situational depression versus certain clinical things.
I was happy that the therapist I went to see after my first husband died, I was seeing specifically for domestic violence. She was like, “Yes, you’re depressed, but my god, any human being would be depressed. If you had absolutely nothing traumatic happening in your world and you had the same sleep issues and all of that, it would be different. But this is you coping with trauma.”
She was like, “Yes, you’re depressed, but my god, any human being would be depressed. If you had absolutely nothing traumatic happening in your world and you had the same sleep issues and all of that, it would be different. But this is you coping with trauma.”
July is a weird month for me—which is kind of fun that I’m doing this now. July, I am at my weakest and my strongest. July was when my first husband died. At the end of the month, I always have this weird time in my brain where all those little walls and things that happened in the past, it’s like they’re gone. I will wake up at the end of the month, and mentally I will feel like that scared nineteen to twenty-year-old girl. I’m just like a scared little three-year-old—anything traumatic that’s happened, it’s like those little walls are gone. I am this terrified little girl.
In the past, I would be really mean to myself: “Suck it up. Get your shit together. I am not going out in public with you.” I sat in the car with myself going, “Suck it up. Stop crying, because we have to go in. We have to go in this building. Would you stop it? Okay, we’re just going to go to Sonic because if you can just stop crying long enough to pay the girl and get your stuff…” and just be mean to myself. Like, “You don’t get to go to dinner tonight because you can’t behave. No dinner for you, crybaby.”
[Now I am] nicer. I tell myself, “Hey, it’s okay. That was really scary.” I go back and validate myself because no one ever did that. I treat myself the way I treated callers on the hotline. Amazingly, being nice to myself worked so much better than belittling myself. Who would have thought that being nice instead of belittling helps? Once I get through that, it’s really cool that the really scared, vulnerable me, gets to see me now. Then I have a day where I’m just ridiculously proud of myself for everything.
I think, last year, I went through that.I had some coworkers with whom I was like, “I need to go celebrate. I’m super proud of myself. I want you to come celebrate with me. But before that, you have to understand what I’m celebrating.” I sent them an email of all the shit I’ve overcome through my life. They cried and hugged me, and I’m like, “No, we’re celebrating, because damn it, I’m here. I’m in New York. I have my dream job. I’m good. I far exceeded everyone’s expectations of me. And I’m going to celebrate that.”
I do have those days where I will wake up scared that the whole world is going to swallow me up and I can’t survive it. But I go, “No, we got this. Yeah, that was real; that was horribly scary, horribly traumatic, and that sucked, but we’re still here. And it’s okay. Look where we are now.” Walking around New York City in that mindset is such a trip.
Des: Oh, yeah?
Shelby: Yeah, it’s like look where I am. Little teen mom from Tulsa, Oklahoma.
Des: What is the ultimate goal of all of this work?
Shelby: Wow, that’s a good question. I’m a total dork for business, and talking about mission and vision. My personal mission is to always be ready to notice an opportunity to make a difference in the lives of others. That’s what pushes me. So, anything that I do, I ask myself, “Is this something that, when I go to bed tonight, I’m going to feel like I did something to make something better for someone else?” It could be giving someone my seat on the subway, writing a curriculum, or training people to go out and help people. Getting back little letters from people that say, “Hey, I went and implemented the training you taught me how to do, and here are the thank you letters I got from the people that attended.” That feels really good.
I’m going to keep helping people. Hopefully I’ll get to stay, because the suicide prevention people are my folks and they’re my family. Hopefully that’ll still be my path, and hopefully I will keep helping.
I would love for that judgment to be gone. At Susan G. Komen, they have a parade of survivors—people with breast cancer. They celebrate that these people survived. I will feel like it’s good when, at some suicide prevention event, they can actively celebrate the lives of people who have survived. I hope I get to see that.
This year, when I did the Overnight Walk, I put a picture of my best friend on my shirt who’s also a suicide attempt survivor, because we should be the smiling happy faces on people’s shirts, too. On my luminary bag, I started writing the first names of everyone I know who’s a survivor. That bag was full, and that felt really good and hopeful.
Des: Is there anything else you’d want to say directly to someone reading your story?
Shelby: Find people who you trust to be vulnerable around. Give yourself permission to not be okay, and find those people in your life. You don’t need very many, but find people it’s okay to be vulnerable with. Practice vulnerability, because when you need it, you need to be good at it. If you don’t have anyone, reach out to crisis text lines or crisis hotlines. Let someone anonymously [help you] practice being vulnerable. If you need to use strangers first, do that, but practice being vulnerable when you don’t need it so that when you do need it, you can reach out for help.