Taylar Nuevelleis a suicide attempt survivor.
"I Survived a Suicide Attempt."
Taylar Nuevelle works in criminal justice reform for women who have trauma-induced mental illness. She was 48 years old when I interviewed her in Washington, DC, on April 17, 2018.
CONTENT WARNING: descriptions of self-injury and suicide methods
Since we’re talking about surviving suicide, I guess I should start with a little of my family background.
I grew up in an intensely violent environment that’s very normalized to this day. I had a very difficult time understanding things, and I never seemed to fit in. My parents divorced when I was two and my mother remarried my stepfather. We had come back from Florida, because that’s where my dad is from. We moved back to the DC area.
I have an older sister. My mother had her when she was a teenager. I have a brother who’s exactly eleven months and eleven days apart from me. I have a younger brother from my stepfather. My mother had him. My mother’s family was still there. They’re from Arlington, Virginia, which is just outside of DC.
My earliest memories are of being abused. I don’t have memories of laughing a lot or being hugged. My most intense memories are of extreme violence in every way you can imagine. I think, by the time I was eight, I had started self-injuring because I had gotten beat. Beatings always happened in front of people. They happened when we had cousins and extended cousins over. They happened in a church. It’s just what they did and nobody questioned it.
My mother’s not a big person—she was tall at the time, she shrunk because of all the medication she takes—but I was eight. I’ve always been, until now, a very tiny person, and I always could feel how small I was. I always wondered, “Don’t they know how little I am?”
I remember being on my back and she was straddling me. She was hitting me, just pummeling me. I was saying, “You’re hurting me.”
I was crying and she said, “What? What did you say?”
I said, “Mom, you’re hurting me.”
She laughed and said, “It’s supposed to hurt.”
So I stopped crying. I never cried for ten years after that. I used to take straight pins, stick them through my skin, and then put my shirt on it. Throughout the day, if I moved, I could feel my skin tearing. It was something that gave me comfort. I don’t know if I was just building up my tolerance.
When I was nine, she told me, “If your own mother doesn’t love you, no one will ever love you, and I don’t love you.”
I disappeared into my books. I was one way at school and another way at home. It was a survival thing. By the time I was eleven, it was like, “Damned if you do, and damned if you don’t.” I started mouthing back.
At the same time, I was having a very hard time just wanting to keep going. Getting up in the morning was hard. I was an eleven year old girl and I didn’t play. I didn’t know how to play. I mean, I would beg when we went to church to go to my friends’ houses, even though their parents beat them too, but not like we got beat. They lived in the city proper. I watched them Double Dutch and do all these things. They were so happy playing in the streets, and I just didn’t do that. I had baby dolls, but I didn’t really play with them. I was very serious.
By the time I got to twelve, we had left my stepdad [because] he was very, very abusive, but the entire family was. My mother would get asthma attacks because she had really bad asthma, and she would call her sister to come over to beat us if she didn’t have the energy to do it. That’s my family. I remember thinking, “I’m going to end up killing her, or she’s going to kill me.”
We were so religious. Pentecostal. After I got baptized at eleven—because you have to make that decision—I remember thinking, “Okay, if I just do all these things right…”Then I came to a conclusion. There’s that biblical phrase, “God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten son.” I was like, “God loves everybody but me, and I don’t need to be here.” I was just slowly processing it.
I mean, I lived in books. They drove my mother crazy. She would come in the room and say, “This is your problem, reading all these white people’s books,” and take my books. That was the only way she could punish me. Tell me to stay in the house, fine. Tell me that I can’t have anything to eat, fine. I don’t care. Take my books, we got problems.
When I was in high school, there was a really bad weekend. My mother literally lost it. I had stopped going to see my dad. He was in and out of the picture, but when he was in the picture, my brother and I had to go visit him because we both have the same father and same mother. I made the decision I wasn’t going to go there anymore. He didn’t do physical stuff, but he did other things.
On this weekend, we had this horrible fight because my brother wouldn’t follow the curfew. We would get punished together, and I was just like, “I’m following the curfew.” Then he wouldn’t follow the punishment. Like, “You can’t go out tonight,” but he went out. I’m staying home and I’m really angry.
[My mother] figured out how to lock my bedroom door from the outside so I couldn’t open it. I remember thinking, “I’m done.” I looked out the window and there was a tree. I took dance, and I was very athletic. I knew I could leap from the window to that tree, and I thought, “And if I don’t, I don’t care.”She came in the room just as I was trying to get out. She pulled me back in and she choked me. She choked me really, really hard. She stopped herself and then she did it again. I’ve learned to go limp, I know how to roll, I can take a hit.
That Monday, she called the school and told them that if they sent me home, she was going to kill me. I get a call down to the Vice Principal’s office, who was also the adviser for my class. The school social worker’s there and all these people. I walk in and I had no idea she had called the school. I had missed plenty of school because she used to bloody my lips a lot, so I didn’t think she would call the school.
I remember [the social worker] walked in. I was sitting on the couch and she said, “Do you want to tell us what happened?”
I had worn a shirt so you couldn’t see the strangulation marks. She’d also beat me with a wooden brush, so I had all these marks on my arm. I just kept holding my collar and said, “I don’t know what you mean.” I had learned in the fourth grade that you can’t tell, because I had told on my stepdad, and they did nothing but call home. My mom hit me so hard she knocked me out. I had learned in fourth grade, you don’t tell. Nobody will help you. So, when the school was asking me these questions, I was like, “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
Then they told me that she called. I had a really good friend who went to a different school. We ran track and competed. Her brother went to my school. She was two years older than me and had given me this necklace. The thing that had enraged me when [my mother] was trying to choke me was not that she was trying to kill me, but that she had broke this necklace that meant so much to me. I pulled out the necklace and I said, “Ask her,” meaning my mom, “how my necklace got broken.”
Nobody thought to call the police. They said, “Do you have a friend you can go home with?” I had a friend I went home with.
A couple of days later—of course, my brother, whose locker was right next to me, was going home reporting right back to my mother. She said, “Send her to the detention center.” She had this idea that you could just send kids to the detention center.
She shows up at school. My guidance counselor comes to get me. They drag me to the other part of the building, but I could hear her. My nickname is Cookie. She was opening up doors and saying, “Cookie, are you in here?” She had a belt.
My friends were like, “Your mother was here at the school with a belt.”
She was livid. In the end, I had to be declared a runaway even to get a hearing. I was criminalized before we could get in front of the judge.
I, at this point, was staying with my biology teacher. She had called my mother and told her, and my mother was like, “I’ve already talked to the police. I’m sending them to your house.” She told me that day in school. I was a cheerleader, so we had a game that day we were cheering. Maybe it was a pep rally. I don’t remember. I remember I was in my cheerleading uniform and I had some Tylenol.
I must have been fourteen. I took the whole bottle and nothing happened. I was really disappointed. I remember telling a friend what I did. We’re still friends to this day. She would support me in anything. She’s like, “Okay, here’s the drink to go with the pills.” She just knew. We kind of waited and nothing happened. I got a little sick. I just can’t believe that this had all happened while I was cheering and doing flips and laughing.
When we were done with the game, we got to the teacher’s house. I remember I was laying on her couch. She had given up smoking. She found a cigarette, but she didn’t have any lighters. She was trying to light the cigarette on the electric stove.
I said, “I have a headache.”
She said, “Yeah, I heard you met your quota for the day.” She called the police. Again, nobody thought to call an ambulance or send me to the hospital.
It was like there was this whole denial around how I couldn’t be that same Cookie. Like, “This can’t be happening to this girl because it doesn’t fit the image.” Even the social worker had said that—that I didn’t “fit the image” of an abused child—which brings a lot of racism into it, because black people are supposed to hit their children. That’s just what black people do, you know? I love Stacey Patton. She’s a saint for writing that book, Spare the Kids.
The police came. I remember that my teacher put her warm hands on my face and said, “Okay, they’re coming.”
I was like, “Please, don’t let them take me.”
When the police walked in, they went into her office to talk, and I just laid there. I just disappeared by myself and I thought, “I’m just going to kill myself if I have to go back there. I’ll figure it out.”
He came out and, mind you, he had been talking to the irate black mother. He was thinking that I was this horrible girl, then he shows up, and I’m this tiny little girl in this cute little red pleated skirt and this matching vest, because I had been cheering. I had on those little tennis socks. I still didn’t fit the image. He said, “Well, I don’t know how to get you into court, because the social worker won’t do anything. I’m going to have to put it down that you’re a runaway.”
Well, we got the message, and we didn’t want the police arresting me, so we just agreed to go in. And we got a hearing.
That was my first attempt. By the time I was in the eleventh grade, I had tried three other times. Then I started researching it with one of my friends. This was one of my other friends who clearly had more issues than me. She was like, “You need a downer. We need to figure out how to get you some other pills.”
In my junior year, I was living in a really bad foster home. Over the Christmas holiday, I had been given muscle relaxers because I had been having really bad cramps with my cycle. I thought, “Those must be a kind of downer.” Getting alcohol was never difficult, so I drank a whole bottle of whatever cheap wine I had.
I woke up to the EMTs giving me shots in my arm, to make me vomit, I guess. I don’t really know.When I woke up again, I was in the emergency room. They were saying that it was too late to pump my stomach, so they gave me charcoal. It looks and tastes like tar. I was hooked up to all these machines, and I was in the ICU for a while.
Then I was sent to a psych ward. It was very, very far away from where we were. I was in northern Virginia, and they sent me to Maryland. It was a Seventh Day Adventist hospital.Because I was sixteen or seventeen, they put me on an adult ward with men. I remember walking into my room one day and one of the men was hiding behind my door. My birth mother came to see me. On my foster care papers, they kept saying that the goal after each visit was reunification. They refused to put “permanent foster care.” I was there for just a couple of weeks. They were more concerned about my weight than the fact that I tried to kill myself. When they spoke to my mother, she was like, “Oh, she has always been skinny! She just doesn’t like food.” She didn’t realize that I had gone to a whole new level of not eating. It was just a whole different level.
I switched foster homes a lot. People who said they wanted me were the first people I tried to stay with when my mother first said that she was going to try to kill me. I went with my biology teacher, so somewhere near the end of my junior year, my biology teacher said they wanted to become licensed foster parents. Their children were away at school, in college. Their children were older than me, but I knew their daughter from before, through soccer. My social worker was like, “Well, teenagers run away a lot, but this is a home that wants you, so we’re going to do this like an adoption. We’re going to make it official.”
They had me calling them Mom and Dad. This was a white family I was living with. I wasn’t perfect. That summer, I had gone on something similar to Outward Bound, and I passed out going up the mountain. They had to take me back to base camp, where I worked. My foster parents were on vacation at that time.
When they got back and came to pick me up after the two-week trip, they met us, and I was like, “Hi, Mom! Hi, Dad!”
They were like, “Uh, you ruined our vacation.” I guess that was the point when they decided that they didn’t want me anymore, but I didn’t know it. They told me right before the holidays that there was an issue.
Also, with my foster dad, his parents were still together, but with my foster mother, her parents were divorced. My foster dad would always say things like, “Oh, she is from a broken home.” He would always say those things. He would also do this other thing whenever I mentioned my siblings: he would say, “No, they’re your half-siblings.” Well, in black families particularly, when it’s the same mother and different father, you just always say “siblings.” That’s just how we were raised. But his parents were very racist. I picked up the phone one day, and I accidentally heard his dad call me a “pickaninny.” I had never met them, but I had met her parents once in Florida. His mom got sick, and he had been traveling a lot for work. He was an engineer. As it turns out, he had been interviewing for jobs in Florida, and looking for houses.
In my senior year, they told me they were leaving and they weren’t taking me with them. One night during the Christmas break, I went through every medicine cabinet in the house, and I took out all the pills. There were three medicine cabinets in the house, and we had a lot of vodka. I just drank it and drank it, and took pill after pill. I went to sleep. But the body is very resilient. I woke up vomiting. I remember my foster mom saying, “You must have caught the flu.”
Another one of my friends called. I hadn’t told very many people that they were leaving me. I was so ashamed. I had that record playing in my head, “If your mother doesn’t love you, then no one is ever going to love you. I don’t love you.” I was just so confused. I kept saying to them, “But you said this would be my home after college, whenever I went to college.” My friend called and talked with my foster mother, who was like, “Oh, she has the flu. You probably don’t want to come over.”
My friend came over anyway, and she was like, “I know what you did.”
Believe it or not, I was in Young Life. Even as naughty as I was, I was in Young Life. My friend called our Young Life leader. She was an adult; she was probably like twenty-eight or something. I was bargaining with them. We lived on this narrow, circular street, and I just kept thinking, “If the ambulance comes, they’re going to be so mad at me, because everyone is going to see it.” So, I was making bets with my friends like, “Okay, if I don’t throw up for another ten minutes, then you can’t take me to the hospital.” Of course, at this point, I was already throwing up the lining of my stomach. I mean, this had been going on for twenty-four hours or more at this point.
I kept blacking out, and I was still throwing up. They drove me to the hospital. I blacked out in the car, and when I came to, they were trying to take my blood. They were trying to get the blood from my veins, and it was in a very painful spot. They were doing something and I remember them saying, “Hold her down.”
I remember my friend saying, “Don’t do that. Don’t treat her that way.”
The guy was like, “It just makes me so mad when people do things like this.”
I remember her looking at him and saying, “You don’t know anything about her. You don’t know anything about her at all.”
I went to the ICU again, and I was given that charcoal tar again. Again, it was too late to pump my stomach. There was nothing in it. They needed to get everything leveled off. They needed to get things back to normal. I was having problems with my heart at that point.
I stayed there for a while. My brother came to visit me, and he told me that they were taking me to One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. He went into my pants pockets and took all the money he could find. They took me to another psychiatric hospital where other adults were. I actually ended up getting restrained at that hospital. I didn’t want to go and do cut and paste, so they restrained me.
I wish I could say that things got better. When I showed back up to school after I had been out, my teachers gave me extensions on everything. I mean, I’m a gifted and talented student. I’m in AP classes, you know? Everyone wanted to see me get to college. Even the judge kept saying, “If we can just get her to college, she is going to be okay.”
At some point in all of this, I think when I went to live with that family, it said, “Goal: permanent foster care.” I think that made me feel better because I was going in and out of foster care. I kept going back home, then back to foster care, because they kept trying reunification, and it was making things worse.
They kept giving me these white male psychiatrists who would sit me down and want to talk to me. Nobody suggested medication, and that was very interesting to me. Nobody ever suggested medication. Everybody just thought, “She has a crazy mother, so she must be unhappy. That’s why she wants to die.” They didn’t even know the depth of what I had gone through—the nightmares or anything. Nobody really wanted to know. That’s what I think. At the end of the day, they were just like, “Well, she’s gifted, so we just need to get her to go to college.”
When I got to university, I started having my first flashbacks. That was really, really hard, because I didn’t have a family. I didn’t even have a foster family. I didn’t get gift boxes. I had to go and stay with friends over the holidays. It was that sense of just not belonging. There were all kinds of rumors, especially among the black students, that I was adopted by a rich white family, and that’s why I acted the way I acted, which was that I was just not talking to people. I want to say that things went well, but I got involved with a lot of bad people. I had grown up being told I was crazy, but nobody else was saying that. Nobody was saying “mental illness.”
I stayed in foster care until twenty-one before I was living independently. My social worker did come out to see me and found me a therapist in Indianapolis. I had a car, so I could drive to therapy once a week. I remember that these drives were so intense. Going there was fine, but I remember that it was exhausting. It wasn’t a long drive back. Maybe it was about one hour to get back to my university, but I would have to pull off onto the side of the road and just sleep because I was so exhausted.
Again, nobody was talking about medication at this point, until I met that therapist. She decided that I was having anxiety attacks. She wanted me to go see a psychiatrist, and they put me on Xanax. I think I stayed on it for about six months, and then I just stopped it. It was a very low dose.
By then, I was done with school. I came back home, and I was dealing with a lot. I was dealing with my sexuality. I was planning to apply to law school. I was taking a year off. I was living in the city. I was having a really hard time. I was having a hard time because I was back in this place where all the abuse had happened, and there was so much denial from my uncles, my aunt, and my mother. It was just not very good.
I ended up getting pregnant. I went to California and married the guy, who abused me a lot. I reenacted a lot of the abuse I told you I went through. I ended up—well, it’s hard to say. I think, now, my therapist would say it was an active attempt at suicide, but I don’t know. They love to give stay-at-home moms valium. I had valium and I had vodka. I started taking it and drinking it.
I was talking with this woman and telling her that I had been to the store or something, and she noticed something was up. She was like, “What’s going on?” She came over, then my best friend from California came over. I was getting sick, and they drove me to the hospital.
When we got to the hospital, they hooked me up to all the things, and they gave me more of that nasty black stuff they make you drink. It hadn’t yet gotten to the point where I was in any kind of crisis, because they caught me before I finished off the bottles of vodka and valium.I remember being in that room with the woman I was talking to, who I was also having an affair with, which my husband knew. And she had a wife.
The woman was there, and my best friend was there, and the nurse said to me, “You have all these people who love you. What is going on?” I always think that is such an interesting question for people to ask you.
I was drugged and drunk, obviously, but I remember pointing at them and saying, “That’s my girlfriend, who has a wife, and that’s my husband.”
She’s like, “Oh, I see. This is very complicated.”
That was the point I decided I had to leave him. I moved back to DC and I ended up in a
custody battle that I didn’t think I needed to be in. I was a stay-at-home mom for five years and this wealthy white man was getting his Ph.D. in Physics.
I left California with temporary sole physical and legal custody. When he got to Princeton to do his postdoc, he came into DC, and his parents rented him a place.I was working. He had told me I’d never get a job because I didn’t work right out of college and so on… I got a fine job. I was supporting my son fine. He had to pay for the private school and things like that, and he had to pay child support. He tried to make it very difficult for me financially. He broke into the house and did all these terrible things.
Suddenly, it became an issue that I had been abused as a child, even in the family court’s eyes in DC. I left with my son and went into hiding in London for three years. I was like, “I had to fight to have this baby. I’m not going to fight to keep being a good mom.” So I left.
I wasn’t really in touch with what major depressive disorder is. I was really in denial about having a mental illness, flashbacks, and PTSD. I have been in different therapy. Even when I was married, I was in therapy. But again, nobody really gave me tools to process.
We talk about trauma now like it’s always been on the table, but it wasn’t until I went to prison in 2010 that the report from the psychologist said, “She’s been through so much trauma, the worst thing you can do is to put her in prison.”
What the judge decided to say was, “She does have PTSD. She’s got borderline personality disorder. She can’t be helped.” He gave me sixty-five months.
I had never even known… I had known I’d been abused, but I didn’t think of myself as a trauma survivor. That’s not how I looked at trauma. There was no talking about a trauma lens. I didn’t learn about that until I got to prison, and then I had my friends send me everything they could learn about it.
Leading up to prison, I was in a very bad relationship with a woman who’s a judge. She was doing really horrible things. When a baby is born, if they’re removed from the home, you’re supposed to be offering reunification services. It’s concurrent planning. She was getting her white lesbian friends to get the children, terminating the rights of these black mothers, and a whole bunch of other stuff.
She had a son she’d adopted when he was six months old who was black, and we had a lot of issues, because I had a lot of feelings about the way she was parenting him. I’m like, “You’re parenting him to end up in prison. You’re not really clear, you don’t have any people of color in your life, and he’s very confused.”
Then, I found out what she was doing and she made a lot of threats. Mind you, I was still doing custody stuff for my son. This is years later, and we’re still doing custody stuff. We were breaking up, and she’s like, “If you ever say anything about what I’m doing, I’ll make sure you never see your son again.”
I had gone to pack up my stuff. I was living at her place, but I still had my apartment. I found a folder that had my name on it. I thought it was something that belonged in my files, because I worked from home. I had my own business as a consultant for nonprofits.
When we first got together, I asked if she knew who I was. She wasn’t a judge at the time, but I’m the woman who walked out of the court with my son and went into hiding for three years. No one could find me, right? I wanted to know if this was talked about, because she was in that division of family court. She told me no, she’d never heard of me.On our first date, I told her the whole story.
Turns out, she knew all about me. We had met through a Unitarian church, All Souls Church, which I call, “The Place Full of Assholes.” We met there because I had friends who lived close by. She was interested in me, but she gave her card—I should have known, because of power play—she gave her business card that said she was a judge, and on the back, she put her personal information.
I went to Mexico shortly after that and she started emailing me. I was in Mexico for, like, three weeks. When I came back, we had a date. But three months before she asked me out, she pulled all the restraining orders against my husband, a restraining order against one of my ex-girlfriends, and the entire family court case.
I got caught once I got back into the country, so I did have a felony already, but the federal court judge was like, “I’m not sending her to prison, so you’d better give her a plea she can live with. If we go to trial, I’m still not sending her to prison.” He was really set on that. He was like, “Family courts make a lot of bad decisions, and this is a social service issue, not a criminal issue.”
She went to the federal court, used her power, and got a lot of sealed documents.I find this file when we’d broken up. The whole relationship was a lie. She knew the things to say to me, do you know what I mean? I can’t describe that feeling. After we had our second date, she said to me, “I’m so glad you told me your story. You were so honest. You’re a woman I could love for the rest of my life.” How long had I waited to hear that? And she knew. She knew everything. There were psychological reports there. There were stories about me.
When I found the folder, I was in the attic getting boxes. Everyone has this fantastic story that I was hiding in the attic, which I was not doing. I was in the attic getting boxes to go pack my stuff up, and I went down to the bedroom. The attic was right above it. It’s really a room. She was on psych meds, not me. I took all her pills and drank a whole bunch of stuff.
When they found me, I was dying. I must have been thirty-eight at that point. I wish I could say that was the last time. That was 2008.
Unfortunately, that case is why, when you Google me, it’s the first thing that comes up. Nobody wanted to get the story. Reporters just report fantastic things: “Judge’s Lesbian Stalker.”
I was free during the whole prep for trial. I knew I was going to go to prison. They kept offering me all these pleas because I filed a judicial misconduct report against her. Long before there was a criminal case, there was a judicial misconduct case—and she just made this entire story up. They offered me a plea to rescind the judicial misconduct complaint and say I lied. That had nothing to do with the criminal case. I was like, “Yeah, then I’m going to get in trouble for a federal charge.” I said, “I’m going to trial, because I didn’t do it.” Little did I know that no attorney was going to really work with me or show the evidence.
I ended up serving four and a half years in prison. This is what we don’t talk about, especially with women. What about people who try to kill themselves when they’re incarcerated? What happens? What do you think happens to women, in particular, when they go to prison? To a federal prison?
I was at a camp. Where Martha Stewart was, everyone’s like, “Camp Cupcake,” but let me tell you, that was where some of the worst abuse happened to me. There are no cameras. It’s a camp—there’s no gates, and people have a lot of access to you.
After I lost at trial, they stepped me back before they sentenced me. I was at the jail. While I was being held, I was attacked by guards because my case was so high profile. They shipped me to a prison way away from DC.
I had a girlfriend this time—I know, whatever. It’s like, “You have another girlfriend?” My girlfriend and my friends came to see me, because you have contact visits. You could have up to five adults. Every week, I had five people visiting me, including my girlfriend. That meant a lot. They sent books, they always had money on my account.
When they shipped me to Northern Neck Region Jail, that was my first attempt while incarcerated. I had just had enough. I had enough. It was like, “It can’t get any worse than this.” That was the first time I ever tried to kill myself by cutting.
I was in a room by myself, because I wasn’t getting along with the other women. I wasn’t getting along with anyone—I was throwing trays, I wasn’t eating—so they put me in a room by myself. It was near the men’s dorm. There was a big gap and you could see into the room, and they would yell and pull their penises out. Just really, really traumatic things.
They gave you sporks, but you know you can cut yourself with anything that you can. When the nurse came to give me my medicine, she opened the little slot, and I didn’t move. She opened the door. Then I went to the hospital, they stitched me up, and they took me back to the jail.
They put me in a room on a metal bunk with no mattress, which is not standard. They put me in a quilted gown and did not give me the suicide robe at all. [They] taunted me.They sent this guy who wasn’t even a psychologist. He was a social worker, and I’m not even sure he had an MSW. He would come in and say stuff to me and, at this point, when you’re at bottom, you’re just like, “Fuck you.”
Finally, I got called back to the DC jail, and they shipped me to Alderson. I wasn’t on any medication, again. There was no treatment. Then I got assaulted. People don’t think about women assaulting other women sexually. The males run the prisons and they get titillated by this.
Dr. Jones is a very, very good chief psychologist, and she finally got me to admit what was happening. You got twelve hundred women in a contained space. They didn’t have a segregated housing unit at Alderson; you would go to county and everyone thought they knew what happened. They thought I reported my—we called them bunkies, because we weren’t in cells, we were in these cubes—that I had reported them for having sex. The warden and associate warden came to talk to me. Bad idea. You cannot walk into the dorm, go up to [someone], and be like, “Come talk to us in this room that’s glass.” They made me a target.
They do have a thing called “Resolve,” which is for people who are trauma survivors—but it’s for trauma survivors and people with substance use disorder. I don’t have concurrent disorders. I went through the orientation, then the person who ran the program left.
At this point, everyone hated me. We had a new associate warden and a new warden. The associate warden was this black woman. Turned out we had the same birth date, she told me later. They sent me up the compound for a while. They sent me to the county jail. You can get more drugs in county jail, if I wanted to use drugs. I walked in and everyone was like, “You’re so sad. What’s your pleasure?” Blew my mind. At the camp, no one would do that. We had visits Friday through Monday, family members came in, and you sat down. Nobody was patted down.
They were watching me. They left me there for three or four days. There’s a big blacked out thing that you don’t have in a camp, and that’s where the guards are with the guns. Well, the warden, the associate warden, and Dr. Jones, they were watching me. They came down to watch me the day before they brought me back. I remember the warden asked me when I came back, “How was the food?” That’s how I knew something was weird. I didn’t eat that food, but I would eat the salad, and the women noticed. It’s sometimes the poorest and those who have the least who give the most. They would pull the salads together and put them in their bowls for me because they knew I would eat that.
The associate warden said to me, “The agreement is that you’re going to go on medication.” I think, partly, I’d had a lot of stigma about it. She’s like, “You have to go on medication. When I look at you and I talk to you, you are so intelligent, and you are so bright. I don’t see all that anxiety and I don’t hear this language they say you use,” because I have a potty mouth from way back to age two. She said, “You’re just too smart to be mentally ill.” Yet, I knew that she had something going on. She’s just like, “You’re just so smart. We read through your paperwork.” That had been the thing, I think; for so long, people were just like, “You’re too smart to be mentally ill. Just stop. Get it together. Just get it together and put it behind you.”
They put me on Celexa. When I was at the DC jail, they did try several things. I was very allergic to everything. Zoloft, Welbutrin—you name it, I was allergic to it. I would be on it two days and puking my guts out. Of course, the last thing they wanted was me throwing up. It was like, “You need to put weight on,” so I went on the Celexa.
I remember one of my friends in prison—you don’t have friends in prison, really. You do, but not really. She had come to me and she was asking me a question. People asked me legal questions all the time. I used to say [that] I’m not a lawyer, but I played one in prison. They all thought that because I had been with the judge, I was a lawyer. They were like, “We know you got disbarred. It’s okay, but whatever.” It’s really funny. I did all these briefs and pro se motions for people. My friend came to me and was asking me a question, and she’s like, “What the hell is wrong with you, Taylar?”
I went to the pharmacist that we had and I was like, “Everything slowed down, I’m forgetting words, and I’m really sleepy.”
He was like, “Ms. Nuevelle, it’s only been a couple weeks. You’ve got to give it six weeks. You’re going to be really tired for a person like you who thinks really fast. This is going to be the hardest thing for you.”
Oh my gosh, was it hard! I got through those six weeks. I felt normal again, but I wasn’t great. Then I got attacked physically and they shipped me to a higher security prison. They had a segregated housing unit and cells there. It’s Hazelton Federal Prison for women. They have cells that you’re locked in with a toilet and a sink. It’s meant for two, but they added a loft, so there’s three women in a space that’s not [big enough].
Within two weeks, my roommates had attacked me. I was red-flagged. They blamed me and put me in suicide watch. Then they started weighing me, which is a really bad thing to do for anybody—any woman, I think! It’s really bad to weigh people all the time. I finally said I wasn’t going to get weighed anymore.
They called in a psychiatrist to come meet with some of us, because there’s no psychiatrist there. The psychiatrist was from Zimbabwe; she was a white woman. She said to me, “Do you know why you’re here?”
I said, “Because of my nightmares and I keep falling out of the bed.”
She said, “No, because they said you’re anorexic. I have your weight chart here.”
I was like, “Mm.”
She said, “What’s the hardest thing for you?”
I said, “I have really bad nightmares, and when I’m falling out of the bed, it’s because I’m running really fast.”
She said, “You know, there’s this medication they tried on vets. It’s actually a high blood pressure medication, but they titrated it. You take a very low dose, and it actually helps with the nightmares.” She prescribed that.
At this point, they didn’t make me go to pill line—pill line was a nightmare—they let me carry my medication. I started stockpiling it, because I would wake up every day and say, “If it gets too hard, I can always die.”
I don’t know how I found the ability to step back into society because, I have to tell you, Taylar Nuevelle is not a very common name. Everybodyknows who I am. Anybody in any position in this city knows who I am. I decided I was going to tell my own story. I was like, “I never got to tell my story, and I’m going to write my own story.”
I had already told the women [in the prison]. They were like, “How are we going to find you when you get out of prison?”
I was like, “Who speaks for me? Just Google it. It’s going to be something. I don’t know what, just Google that.”
I was on suicide watch a lot. Sometimes they did it just to punish me. It was always so cold in that room. The chief psychiatrist there always wrote out the prescription—there’s a prescription when you’re on suicide watch. There’s a door that has a shower and things, and the prescription was that my door stayed open all the time because, as soon as I got put on suicide watch, I’d start getting sick. You don’t want to have to have the guards call to come unlock the door. He made sure I kept my socks and underwear. I don’t know how he knew that was important.As soon as he left, they just took me to the ringer on a roll one day.
When you’re on suicide watch, you don’t get to make phone calls like you do when you’re in the SHU. You get no letters. You get nothing. The last six months of my incarcerations, I spent the equivalent of ninety days, on and off, on suicide watch. The longest stretch was three weeks, which was about five weeks before I left the prison. I had no psychiatric treatment, no therapist, nothing. I remember laying there thinking, “My friends don’t know where I am. Nobody knows where I am. Who speaks for me?”
When I got out, I started writing myself free. I started writing about all the things I had learned. Not just about me. Because I had read the women’s pre-sentencing report, I discovered that so many were trauma survivors, though they didn’t see me like them because I didn’t use drugs, didn’t rob people, and hadn’t done sex work.
I sent the list of everything I wanted, because I was going to the halfway house. My younger brother and I had reconnected at this point, and he was coming with a friend. All my clothes still fit me. I didn’t need anything really, just stuff at the halfway house, but they came with a car load of stuff to take me to the halfway house.
I had to meet with all of these people. I was still in bureau prison custody because DC doesn’t have its own prisons, so they have a contract for us to go into federal prison. Until you’re out of the halfway house, you’re still incarcerated. It’s halfway in, halfway out.
The head of mental health for the mid-Atlanta region came to meet with me the day after I got there. They had already made an appointment with the Department of Behavioral Health. I was to go there, and I was going to be on Xanax. I didn’t have a choice. They had decided after reading through my records, and my behaviors in prison—meaning I wrote people up all the time and I had a lot of panic attacks—they decided I was going to be on Xanax, along with whatever else. It was written into the agreement that whatever was prescribed I had to take, or I would be taken back to prison. They added the Xanax to the Celexa. I had been on it before, but they had me on up to five milligrams a day.
Things did get better. I met you, I started writing. I ended up in a bad relationship that didn’t last too long, but I was glad I got out of that. It was like, “Whatever. Not worth it.” I lived in some bad places. Housing is very hard. And I still had that thought: if it gets too bad, I can kill myself.
At this point, I’m out of the halfway house, they’re giving me all the Xanax, and I’m living on my own. Things were going okay until last year when my friend, Lovely, died by suicide. My therapist, when I finally told her, said, “I’m not going to tell you to stop drinking wine, because I know you really like wine, but I want you not to be taking your Xanax with the wine before you go to bed, because it can slow your breathing.” That’s all they told me, that it can slow and stop your breathing.
Two months after Lovely passed, I got really depressed. I think part of it was that I was teaching at the jail, I was doing a lot of speaking and a lot of writing, and I was doing [a project with some artists]. I was re-visiting a lot of trauma, but I was putting on this face, and nobody could see how much it really hurt me that she left.
At this point, we had gotten me down to a lower dose, because I was demanding to come off the Xanax. I didn’t know your body could get addicted to it. Once I found that out, I got very angry. You’re only supposed to be on Xanax for like six months. I’ve been on it for four years now, and it makes me very, very angry that somebody ordered it. Even on probation, they ordered me to take it.
When Lovely passed, I started parsing out my pills so that, on the weekend, I could take a lot and drink with them. I didn’t feel like I was being deceptive because I really wasn’t taking it before I went to bed, I was just taking it all day long. Then Sunday would come, and I would sort of get myself together, because when Monday arrived, I had to be on again.
It was found out that I was doing this, and [my therapist] asked me what I thought was going to happen. I said I didn’t care. She was like, “You were trying to kill yourself.” It was so different than the times before, I didn’t see that. This was from August to October I was doing that.
I know this is going to sound crazy, but Lovely was this amazing woman. I mean, she had just gotten into the Syracuse Ph.D. program she wanted, but she had gotten fired by the Syracuse district because she stood up for students. She had a master’s [degree] and she was cleaning hotel rooms. We found out she wasn’t eating because she didn’t have money for food sometimes. Somebody had hurt her, and all we saw was this amazing, strong woman. Very amazing—this black woman who was going to say it and do it. It floored me, because where did that come from? Then I had to do a lot of thinking. I was very jealous of her. She didn’t just passively lay there drinking, she shot herself. I was very envious of her.
We are at this stage now where I keep thinking that nobody talks about what happens when, as a black woman, you lose your job. Because you’re black, you’re supposed to be grateful and keep your mouth shut. What that does to you when you know you’re more qualified than the people who have hired you—nobody talks about how that plays in your psyche and how it has been going on your entire life. There are so many Lovelys in this world.
Nobody talks about the whole #MeToo movement. When is it going to hit prison, and when are we going to start talking about suicide attempt survivors in prison? When are we going to talk about those women who are slicing their wrists or buying medication from other people to kill themselves? When are we going to talk about that? Or the people who are diabetic and know they don’t deserve to be in prison, and they’re not getting proper treatment, so they just gorge themselves on things that they’re not supposed to eat because they know it’ll kill them? I watched women die like that! That was not accidental. When we talk about suicide, suicide attempt survivors, or people who are the relatives or friends of people who have died by suicide in prison—nobody talks about that.
What are we doing to make it a safe place to come back home to, to educate people to demand that? It’s the same way I feel about trauma and treatment for that, and building a trauma-informed justice system.
Everybody expects great things from me, but nobody knows what it’s like when the sun rises and I’m like, “I don’t want to face this day.” The night comes, and I’m terrified of sleep.
There’s this thing in the women’s prisons that says, “I am my sister’s keeper.” You’re supposed to pay attention. They don’t sit down and talk to you about what suicide is. They have this formula of what the signs are of suicide, and it’s a joke. I wouldn’t give any of my shit away while I was doing it. I would just do it.
Prisons are built for, by, and run by men. The same dynamics you see in our society that keep women apart are perpetuated in prisons so that women are telling on each other. They don’t know how to bond together. The same thing happens in the prisons, but it’s more dire, because you really are at the bottom. Instead of teaching women that we’re all we got… That’s what I teach in my class. You’re all in the same colors here. I was in those colors, and one of the worst things is not being able to work together. You stand with each other. That’s what the men do in prison. They stand with each other. They don’t go tell on each other that somebody’s trying to write somebody up.
If they could build more community and do more activities to let the women see they’re more alike than different, then I think you’d have less people abusing drugs. Diabetics basically deciding, “I’m going to kill myself by eating twenty honeybuns,” this isn’t a made up story, “and drinking a case of Coke.”
I think that they don’t do suicide awareness at all, especially in the Federal Bureau of Prisons. They’re very reluctant to bring outside people in, because they’re always afraid someone’s going to tell what they’re doing. But I feel the same way about that as I do about telling women that, if someone is doing something to you that you don’t want them to do sexually, it’s not non-consensual. It’s rape. If, every morning when you wake up, you’re thinking, “If it’s too bad, I can kill myself,” there’s something going on. There needs to be a safe space.
That’s one of the hardest things, because you’re in a situation where people gossip and people shame. I mean, so much shame around it that people don’t get the help they need, or they get so beaten down. It’s like, diabetics are supposed to have these special shoes. You shouldn’t have to argue over and over again to get the right shoes that they’re supposed to supply for you. You shouldn’t have to argue to get basic things to make you feel like a person. It leads to deep depression.
When you look at the statistics of women, [there are] three types of violence we look at. We look at sexual assault, intimate partner violence, and caregiver violence, which would be violence, usually, in childhood. When you add that all up, over eighty-five percent of women who are incarcerated have experienced that on some level. So, we are locking up women who are extremely traumatized.
They give you these little questionnaires when you first come in. No one’s gonna say, “Yeah, I’m suicidal,” because where are they going to take you? They’re going to put you in a turtle suit and put you in a cold room! I just think that there needs to be more ongoing dialogue. They find time to bring you together for all kinds of things. Why aren’t they bringing women together and having people come in and talk about it? Women do really well when they see outsiders coming in. They really want to make a connection and talk to you.
I just think that we need to be more proactive, and really look at what we can do to make this different. I do believe that it is a lot of trauma. Trauma-induced mental illness is what I call it. Whatever labels they want to give to it. I think, if there was a concentrated effort on knowing women have trauma… We’ve got resident drug abuse programs. Why don’t we have a trauma survivors residential program, and a trauma-informed prison with a trauma-informed approach? What would that look like? It’s not hard to do. I think that we could incorporate that. They have AA, NA, GA—people from the outside coming to do that. Why can’t we have people come from the outside and talk about suicide and suicide prevention? I think that’s really important.
Coming home, where I was working before, three of our clients died after they got out. I’m not so sure it wasn’t suicide. There’s a chain of groups from the different prisons, and it’s really sad to log in every few months and see that. It’s usually the older women who did a lot of time who have died, and I am pretty sure it was by suicide. So, it’s not just education. It’s what supports you when you get home. What supports are there, besides throwing medication at you?
And there are other side effects to being on Xanax for this many years that nobody wants to talk about. We’re just starting to talk about the side effects I’ve been experiencing. It’s in a very dangerous state now, taking me off of it.
Des: Tell me if suicide is still an option for you.
Taylar: Yes. Absolutely. It’s my choice. It’s absolutely my choice.
Des: You know, that’s the answer that people usually give me.
Taylar: I didn’t know that.
Des: Yeah. I ask people that because I want the honest answer, and I want these doctors knowing that this isn’t something [that’s just] over and we’re all good now, forever.
Taylar: No. And I think that’s pretty much how I got lost in the very beginning. If you look at the ACEs—the adverse childhood experiences—my score is like an eight. I was primed for so many things before I took my first breath, you know? The idea that a judge would know that I tried to kill myself and didn’t order ongoing therapy or a complete psych workup is just… they’re like, “Okay, she’s fine now! She’s home now.”
I’m a very, very private person. I would never tell anyone, until something blows up, that I’m in crisis. Yeah, it’s still an option. I didn’t know people would say that. I thought all the people you interviewed were all like, “Oh, no. I’m all well.”
I love my therapist, she is amazing. She said to me when I went to the hospital—I was in the hospital for the holidays—she said, “You know, Taylar? The world is just much more beautiful with you in it, and I would never be able to live with myself. I just can’t take that chance. You’ve told me, so we need to come up with a plan.” It was either I call, or we pick a day that my case manager goes with me. That’s why I had to go. I wouldn’t have gone. I mean, I have to be very honest with her. She doesn’t ask me that often, but the psychiatrist asks you every time you go. I’ll go every month to go over the list.
Des: Tell me, has anything good come out of these attempts? Has anything good come out of the trauma in your life?
Taylar: I think only in as much as we help other people, but not me. I became a really good writer. I tell stories really well. But I am not one of those people who say, “Because of this, I’m stronger.” I do not believe that whatever doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. I believe that whatever doesn’t kill you makes you more vulnerable. I believe that wholeheartedly, and I have spent more than half my life being a survivor of different types of abuse. I can’t point to one positive, except that the man I married, I got a son out of him. I shouldn’t have married him, because I already had the baby in tow.
No, I really can’t [say anything good has come of it]. I don’t know how other people answer that, but I’m just really honest.
It drove me so crazy when people in prison would say, “It’s God’s will.”
I’m like, “There is no God, no Goddess. There is no ancestor who wants us suffering like this. Not my God. Not my ancestors. No.”
Right before Lovely passed, my godmother died. She was the only one in my family who never abused me. My godsister called, and she was like, “It’s your godmom’s funeral.” I had to see almost all of my abusers. I had to sit through that funeral, sit through that to pass. My mother was there. I didn’t talk to any of them, but they had a lot to say about me. That’s probably when I started spiraling, even before Lovely passed.
I think, for me, when I finally get this book out of me and I get to expose them, that will be the good. Because they’re abusers. It doesn’t matter if it’s your family. Long before I got to prison or got married, the damage was there. They just found me easily to be able to do that. I don’t think anything good came from it. People tell me my story helps them, and that makes me feel good. But I wish I didn’t have that story to help them. I wish I didn’t need that story.
Taylar’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 Taylor Binnix, Andy Dinsmore, Whitcomb Terpening, and Taryn Balchunas for providing the transcription to Taylar’s interview, and to Sara Wilcox for editing.