Susan Meansis a suicide attempt survivor.
"I survived a suicide attempt."
Susan Means is an entrepreneur. She was 61 years old when I interviewed her in Phoenix, AZ, on December 10, 2015.
I can first remember feeling suicidal, or like I wanted to leave the earth, probably at about eleven or twelve.
I couldn’t explain it. It was the weirdest feeling. I didn’t have a bond with my parents or my family. In those years we had the nuclear war fears. There was a lot of that prevalent. I grew up in the age where we were told to “duck and cover” in case we had a nuclear attack. I think, in some ways, I always thought, “Well, I’m gonna go sometime soon anyway, why not go when I want to?”
I was an unhappy child. I can remember having a horribly dysfunctional family. I was the oldest one. Feelings and emotions weren’t encouraged.
I had an experience when I was twenty-two where I went and did something called “Life Spring,” which is a personal growth movement that was very prevalent in California. I went with a whole bunch of people from work. It was an experiential training environment where you went for five days, and it gave you a chance to explore all of those beliefs you were raised with and take a look at what you wanted to keep. It was a really confrontational environment. At the end of five days, I felt like it was the catalyst and it was transformational, but the theme of it was, “If you’re not creating your own reality, you’re a victim—you’re playing victim.”
That comes along with a lot of guilt if things aren’t going right, because why would I choose to play victim? I can remember my group of friends were all a part of that movement. I did everything they offered. Then I worked for another company after that that did the same kind of trainings. I just lived in this bubble of thinking, “I’m gonna be fine no matter how I feel inside. Get out of it!” I didn’t feel the comfort to share with anybody that I wasn’t doing okay.
When I was thirty, I had my first attempt. I had a relationship, a marriage with a really important man to me. He left very abruptly for a young girl. I went into a complete grief spiral. I can remember going to the local mental health place and going, “I’m in trouble, I’m in trouble,” and them going, “Oh! Just go home, you’re having a grief reaction!” I can remember thinking hour by hour, “I can’t do this, I can’t do this.” I had a five-year-old son at the time. He was with his dad in San Diego. I just hung on by the minute. I realize now that the lack of therapy or anything during that period created a horrible spiral for me.
When I was thirty-five, I had another attempt. It was [the] 80s, and I voluntarily put myself in a crisis center for one week. I can remember I didn’t want to give them my social security number or my full name. I had worked for a family practitioner at one point and realized that you are labeled with preexisting disorders if you start giving your information. I can remember that he would actually try to refer people to psychiatrists who wouldn’t take them because of liability.
This was stigmatized in my generation. If you mentioned anxiety or depression, you might not get insurance. And, of course, if you didn’t have insurance, you had to pay cash for any kind of therapy. Who had cash?
The next thing that happened was that you could never say you felt suicidal, because then you got locked up. I knew that I couldn’t take that risk because the only thing I had control over was whether or not I decided to live or die.
The next thing that happened was that you could never say you felt suicidal, because then you got locked up. I knew that I couldn’t take that risk because the only thing I had control over was whether or not I decided to live or die. If I put myself in a hospital environment, I knew that would destroy me. I used to have this saying: “If you put me in the hospital, I guarantee you, the day after, I’m gonna do it for sure. Don’t take that away from me.”
I lived through those years of not telling anybody how I felt. Horrible anxiety. I’d go to a doctor every now and then when I had trouble and go, “I’m just really anxious,” and they’d throw me through some other kind of antidepressant. None of it worked. I’d want it to work. I always wanted it to work, but it didn’t work.
My mother was on antidepressants. We were always told [by] the family: “You’ve inherited this kind of thing.” I just did not feel drugs were the method for me, and I didn’t feel I could talk openly, much.
I avoided therapy. I avoided everything. Then, every time I’d have a big crisis—I had somebody stealing from me in the business that almost killed my business… that was the turning point—I had another attempt.
I’ve had a total of four attempts. My last one was three years and two days ago, December 12th. I overdosed, and spent, I think, ten days on a ventilator. My husband was told that I wasn’t gonna make it. Organ failure, everything. I remember coming out of it not being clear. They said I had written “DNR” all over my arms and my chest. I did an overdose, so I ended up with full acute respiratory shutdown, as well as cardiac arrest.
I remember that, when I came to, I thought I had just had another surgery, because I had had a couple surgeries. I wasn’t aware of what was going on. I can remember that, when they discharged me, it was listed as just overdose—nobody mentioned the “DNR” written all over me.
I remember so clearly the unbelievable shame. Nobody could find out about this. I lived in a small town, so I knew a lot of people. I had a new business, and it was terrifying.
All I could think was, “God, I can’t believe it didn’t work. I can’t believe it didn’t work.” I was so angry.
They got me in to see a psychiatrist pretty quickly. She is very holistically oriented. She didn’t believe in pushing drugs if I didn’t want them. She saw me twice a week to begin with. I can remember being in this small room in a very large office building and thinking, “I can’t even cry, because everybody can hear.” I can remember saying, “I don’t want you to write any notes because somebody’s going to have to transcribe them and I live in a small town. I know how the system works. There’s no safety for me here, so I can’t express anything here.” I’d just go in there and cry two days a week! She’s like super glue!
One day she told me, “Have you ever read Brené Brown?”
I said, “Hmmm.” I pulled up the Brené Brown stuff, and I said, “Oh my god, this is it! It’s the toxic shame, it’s the perfectionism, it’s that I’ve always gotta hold it together, I’ve always gotta be strong and powerful.”
This comes so much from having a job, even [when] I worked for the airlines when I was nineteen. I was a ticket agent, and I can remember they didn’t think women could throw a bag and put it on the belt. Then I worked on the ramp, and they didn’t think women could work on the ramp. You always fight for your autonomy when you were a woman in that age range.
I couldn’t allow any less-than-perfect actions in my life. It was fatal for me. It was fatal. The psychiatrist promised me that the notes stayed in her chart, that they wouldn’t go anywhere. She allowed me to express suicidal ideation. First time, she made me sign this little waiver thing, but we both looked at each other and knew [that] I’m going to be in control until the very last second. I can remember for the first time being with somebody who wanted to try inner-child work. It just held me together.
After I started reading the Brené Brown, I said, “I can get behind this. Something has to change.” I booked myself an experiential training
in Tennessee called Onsite. I said to somebody, “This is what worked for me in the past, all I have to do is kind of get a grip again.”
I went, and I formed this group of friends out of that, like four or five people. We connected via Whatsapp, and every day we would talk and connect, talk and connect, and I went, “Oh my god, I’m starting to feel better! I can talk openly, I can express my feelings, and I’m not being judged!”
I said to myself, “I need community. That’s what I need is community,” so I came back to Arizona. I signed up and took therapy sessions with some folks that were founders of Co-Dependents Anonymous, and started learning a little bit about those principles. But the main thing was their mode of therapy was trauma based: look at the trauma in your life, go back and work on it. It’s literally an enmeshment thing. You go back from your earliest memories, all the way through. The point is to release the energy and the emotions and the feelings regarding those events. They teach you a way to work your way through it when an event happens.
I do that daily now. Really, this is probably the first time in my life I’ve felt any amount of stability. In my group therapy sessions, I can say exactly where I’m at. At any given moment I can say, “Today I didn’t want to live. Today I was up in the mountains. We were driving through the woods, and I remember coming around a corner, seeing this beautiful spot, and going, ‘I can die here. This is the place I’m going to keep in my mind that I can go and die.'” This is just a compulsive, habitual thought pattern for me. I’m free of it now for the first time in almost six months. First time in my life.
I’m uneasy because I feel like I could slip any time and go back. I do. And I’m terrified of that.
I also feel like, now I walk around and I see a new dimension to everybody. I never had that. I mean, it’s like there must be normal people out there! And I’m just walking in a different light. I don’t take medications. I don’t have any medications. If I took something, it would be an anxiety reliever because I still get that stress anxiety thing. Now I’m kind of taught ways to express those emotions.
I’m learning for the first time in my life how to get really fucking angry. I didn’t know how to do that—anger is what makes me want to check out. I could never handle stress. I appeared to handle stress, but I really couldn’t handle it. It would send me into anxiety overload. Now, finally, it’s feeling like it’s simmering down.
I think that this is something that hasn’t been spoken of, ever, in my generation—what it’s like to wanna check out… Don’t ever admit these things. Anywhere. It wasn’t until I started lookin’ at early childhood trauma and other events that I got a handle on it. But you didn’t do that then. You didn’t do that in my generation.
Des: You were born in the ‘50s?
Susan: I was born in the end of 1953. In my childhood, there was a lot of violence—not necessarily with me, but within the home. Those events are still very triggering for me. Whenever I see anxiety or anger, I become tongue-tied and inarticulate. I’m just overwhelmed, I’m in terror. I’m starting to work through some of those things, too. Just the difficulty in setting boundaries that were healthy for me, to say, “No, I’m not gonna go do that today.”
Des: We’ve got thirty years difference between us exactly. I feel like so much of this stuff that you’re saying still applies today. Probably not to the same extent.
Susan: The one thing that is a little bit different here, that is a huge reliever for me in the oddest way, is the new health insurance. I come from the generation where there was no insurance if you opened your mouth. None. It was all pre-existing, so I would be one hundred percent uninsurable right now. I know it’s not perfect, but I also know that it opened my mouth to start talking again, to know that I could at least get treatment if I had to. But I know that I’m talking at the very beginning of this movement, and it probably won’t be accomplished even in my life span, but at least you’re starting it!
Des: Talk to me about your higher power.
Susan: When you start twelve step stuff, they want you to sign onto “the god” or the higher power of your understanding. That was very, very hard for me because [I was] raised Unitarian. [I was] pretty agnostic, verging on atheist, many times in my life, until I started studying metaphysics. I really have had some amazing experiences. I do believe in more than one life, absolutely.
When I had to go and do that, it was like, “I’m not going to that group! I can’t do that!” Because that would mean having to acknowledge something higher and better than I am all the time. My higher power is the strength and spirit within me. That’s what it is to me. It’s when I’m centered, and in tune and in touch with what my spirit says. Sometimes I’m not there. Then I have to look at my dog, Casey, and I go, “Where are you today? Could you give me a hand up, or something? Because I’m not feeling really okay.”
It’s my higher power. I didn’t surrender to something else. And when I do these three steps in a CoDA thing, I go, “How do I get back in touch with who I am?” I have a hard time with that word “surrender” because it doesn’t really fit for me, but I’ll do whatever I have to do to hand it off. I don’t need to hand it off in the traditional way that a lot of people probably do.
Des: Unless you’re handing it off to Casey.
Susan: Yeah, I can hand it off to Casey for a while when I can’t stand it, or when things aren’t okay, and then I use the tools that were given to me. I just get re-centered, and that’s working for now. Will it work forever? Man, I fucking hope so. Unfortunately, I don’t know. I can’t predict. Anybody who’s had this many attempts knows that there’s no prediction.
The other thing that’s worked for me is detaching. I have to detach from the things that are unhealthy. I have to detach from the people who are toxic, because I don’t want that energy in my space anymore. I’m all about being very selective, having some very clear boundaries, and that’s been critical. It has been really critical.
Des: Yeah, it’s hard to do.
Susan: It’s very hard to do, especially if you’re my age, because we learned about the work ethic, which means you never quit, you never stop, you never let anything stop you, you always endeavor to achieve and excel. Excelling is hard.
Des: Talk to me more about Casey, because it sounds like she plays a big role.
Susan: I never had any idea about how much I could love a pet. I grew up with a dog, no real bonding. I had dogs different times in my life, no real bonding.
She is eleven and a half now. My husband and I looked for almost a year for a dog that we thought would be the right breed for what we were looking for. I can remember meeting this dog and just going, “Oh my god, I can feel such a presence from her.” It took time to train her right. She turned out to be super intelligent. I could take her everywhere. It sounds hokey, I know, but I felt like I could sit there and express feelings that were unexpressed anywhere else, and that she could sense everything that was going on with me. She’d come over and sit next to me, or she’d lay across my lap, or look at me just so, and I’d say, “I can’t leave you!” If that’s all it took, that was worth it.
She just has a special spirit and power in my life. She’s the strength that I need when I’m especially vulnerable or weak. I’m okay with that, with whatever is out there for me. The animal spirits are powerful.
Des: I don’t think we’ve put enough stock into how intelligent and compassionate our pets are. When I’m hurting, there’s a dog there!
Susan: Always! And you look at them and it forces you to say, “I have to be responsible for you, I have to work my way through this.”
Des: And they’re just loving you. I feel very strongly about that, too.
Susan: It’s unconditional love. I can tell you I have never experienced that in my life until I got a dog. Never. She just knows what’s going on. She’s smart. She knows the names of her toys. No back-talk, and no trying to borrow money either. All they care about is, ”When are you coming home next?”
Des: Yeah, they’re totally the people you want to hang out with. I don’t think we were recording yet when you told me about Casey being next to you.
Susan: They said that when I was in my little coma there, and I was still at home and had already aspirated, that when people were there, she literally stayed right at the end of the bed. She didn’t move.
After the first day, when I went into the ICU and they told my husband I probably wasn’t going to make it, he said he went home and he sat on the sofa Casey had seen me taken off. Casey got up on the sofa and he said, “Casey girl, I think we might have lost your momma today.” He said that she literally draped herself across his lap, that she molded to him like Jello.
That brings tears to my eyes. A human being can always make it on their own, but an animal?
…For whatever it’s worth, that’s my lifeline.
Des: You mentioned you wrote “DNR” on your body. What does it feel like to have decided that you don’t want to be resuscitated and then to subsequentlybe resuscitated?
Susan: Good question. I vaguely remember. I probably took that lipstick that has a tint that lasts awhile. I’m an avid motorcyclist, so in the years that I have ridden motorcycles, I have always known that I’d take a chance at a wreck or whatever. Because I’ve worked in the medical industry, I knew darn well I never wanted to be vegetative or hooked up to machines.
This is a very important question, actually, because I was hooked up to machines. I can remember saying, in all the years I was motorcycling, “Listen, if something serious happens, let me go. I will come back to haunt you if you keep me alive. I do not want to exist with brain damage or with severe disabilities.”
I know that when I took that medication that I didn’t want to be resuscitated, no matter what. What I didn’t count on was that they didn’t see it written on me when they started CPR. EMS came out to pick me up, and I guess it was revealed somewhere between that and the time that they picked me up to put me on a stretcher. You can’t do anything about it!
I guess, when they got me to the ER, my husband said, “Wait a minute, wait a minute, she doesn’t want it!” And yet, he was one of those who did CPR. They say that once that happens and you’re there and you witness it, you can’t stop yourself. You try and do something. That’s what the other person goes through.
When I got to the ER, the doctors told him, “We have to. We don’t have a choice. It’s against the law to do suicide.”
When I got to the ER, the doctors told him, “We have to. We don’t have a choice. It’s against the law to do suicide.” So, everything went into action. I got transferred to a big ICU unit, where they immediately put me on ventilators, despite organ failure and the likelihood of almost nothing. I think I had CPR for about fifteen minutes before I had interference and I was bagged a bunch, but I had taken enough medication for a full cardiac arrest and a full respiratory arrest.
Believe me, I knew exactly what I was doing. This was going to be my last attempt. There was no chance of ever coming back.
When they put you on a ventilator, they paralyze you so that you can’t fight anything. They give you drugs to “take away the memory of it,” but I have distinct memories of being forced and held down—which are my claustrophobic feelings, which terrorize me. They had a hard time bringing me off the ventilator. Then I couldn’t talk, and I didn’t know exactly what had happened.
My husband and the friend who did CPR, I can remember them being really anxious like, “We were afraid you wouldn’t want us to do this.” They never really explained to me what had happened, like, “Well, we went ahead and did CPR. Now we’re worried you’re mad at us!” I remember thinking, “No, no, it’s okay,” but not really being cognizant of what they were saying.
I know that I was there alone in the ICU when the doctor said to me, “Did you know you wrote DNR?”
I looked at him, I go, “What?” Then I was fucking pissed, because I knew what had happened. I felt like it had been taken totally out of my hands, and this is one thing I had control over at the moment. I was furious about it, but I’ll tell you, I was also afraid that I wouldn’t get out of that hospital if I expressed any emotions, that I’d go right to the lockup. So I acted like, “Oh no, everybody did everything right. It’s totally okay.”
I was a mess. By the time I got home, I was more angry than I was before it happened, but I couldn’t talk about it, because I was afraid I would end up with forced hospitalization.
Des: I’m still stuck on “it’s illegal.”
Susan: It is illegal.
Des: Where?! I thought it was only illegal still in Virginia?
Susan: No, this was in Oregon when it happened.
Des: Oregon, of all places!
Susan: I think another thing was, becausethey called EMS, they couldn’t stop the action. I used to ride motorcycles in Florida. The annual bike ride run would come up in Daytona, and they had, one day, an ER physician there who was a rider. He said, “You guys all think that you’re gonna have an accident and your personal wishes of not being resuscitated are going to be recognized by the paramedics who hit the scene—not so! The first thing they’re going to do is resuscitate you and get you to the hospital, and then nobody is gonna take legal action to disconnect.”
That’s part of it: it takes legal action to disconnect. People have to feel there’s no chance of survival. He said, “If you don’t want to be resuscitated, tattoo it on your forehead before you leave on your bike.” I remember that. He said, “Once it’s in action, it’s out of your control.”
I know that my husband said that when he was in the ER. He said, “Wait a minute, wait a minute, she doesn’t want any of this. She won’t want any of this.”
They said, “It’s out of your hands.”
I would have been dead. It would have been done.
How do I feel about that now? That I’m alive?
I still feel I walk a tricky slope, and I can’t tell you what the future holds. I can tell you that I have quality, authentic relationships, honestly, for the first time in my life. Will that help? By “authentic and quality,” I mean I am able to speak who I am, and I’m about to talk about myself without hiding anything that I’ve hidden for my entire life. I wasn’t happy to be alive until about roughly a year ago. It was a daily slog.
Des: Do you think that what you just said also answers the question of whether suicide is still an option for you?
Susan: I tell the therapist [that] I don’t think suicide’s an option for me. I think I have tools now, but yep, I don’t think it’s gone forever. I don’t think I can expect it to be gone forever. I have a great deal of compassion for people who feel as awful as I did on that day, and I get it. When you’ve been years and years feeling like that, I believe you have the right to choose.
This is really an important thing: one of the people who did CPR on me was an old friend of mine from my personal growth days. It affected her in a way that, within a week of me getting out of the hospital, she sat on the sofa next to me—and she’s a recovering alcoholic, addict, been sober for years and years—she said to me, “You know, I’ve tried to educate myself about this stuff, but next time make sure all your affairs are in order, and all your loose ends are tied up.”
I remember going, “Oh my god, could I feel any worse? I can barely walk, I wish I had died, and then this is a person I’ve known for thirty years saying that to me?”
Then, about ten days later, I encountered her husband on the street. I am very fragile, and he said the same thing. He said, “Yes, we both agree. Next time get all your affairs in order before you do that.” As though we plan this?
I remember calling my shrink’s office after that and going, “I’m not okay. I’m not okay.” I was going to drive right off the road. That was such an incredible trigger, like, “You don’t have a fucking idea what this life is like. How dare you!” I thought to myself, “You can tell me that your greatest fear is you’ll drink a bottle of tequila, puke in the gutter, and fuck every guy on the block. This is my reaction when things are deadly for me. I don’t do that,but this is what I do.”
It was devastating. I wrote her an email. I haven’t spoken to her since, and she’ll never be in my universe again.
People don’t understand us. There’s more tolerance for drugs, alcohol, and sex addiction than there is for us. You can at least talk about those things. But she said what was real for her, and it reminded me that it’s real for a lot of people. That’s how they think. They think, “Make sure you transfer your money into this account so it’s more accessible. Make sure that you’ve done your laundry and filled out your paperwork.” That’s how it felt!
There are a lot of people who never think about doing this, who never think about the potential of dying. But for those of us who do, I think we’re always looking for a solution, we’re always looking for other people that are like us, because we feel like we’re on an island.
Des: Don’t even have a volleyball to hang out with.
Susan: I know!
Des: Don’t even have a Wilson!
Susan: You know something else? They always say, “What was your drug of choice?”
I go, “Isolation.” I would just totally isolate. I would just disappear and sleep. I slept constantly. I thought, “Well, that’s a lot better than doingsomething,” but the truth is, that’s full avoidance at the same time. That’s a medicator for me, definitely. That’s some weird shit.
One other thing is the impact. I have a son. He just turned thirty-seven yesterday, and he has a little girl who’s just under two. He doesn’t speak much of emotions at all. I’m sure that he thinks I’m crazy and he’s worried if I’ll ever be okay. He must certainly have fears about me being around his little girl, because who wants to get attached to somebody who’s not stable?
I had to learn to kind of detach from that, and go, “I get that, I understand that.” Yet, knowing that, what the odds are of him inheriting what I have, the compulsions and whatever they are?
They’re there. They’re real. And we can’t even talk about them. He’s not somebody given to show his emotions, or feelings, and so it can’t really be discussed. Someday I hope it will, but I sure worry about the impact on him. What it’s like to [not] know whether your mom’s gonna step off again or not. I can remember that he probably overheard some suicidal conversations I had when he was about eight or nine, so you can just imagine the impact that’s had on him in his life, whether or not he acknowledges it or knows it.
That’s an awful guilt to carry, because of what I know now, how every event in our life impacts us, and alters our journey. I do worry about that.
Susan’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 also to Whitcomb Terpening for providing the transcription to Susan’s interview, and to Sara Wilcox for editing.