Tina Aspegrenis a suicide attempt survivor.
"I Survived a Suicide Attempt."
Tina Aspegren is a marketing specialist from Kansas City, MO. She was 41 years old when I interviewed her in Lawrence, KS, on September 18, 2016.
I would say I probably started struggling with depression when I was in late grade school. Probably started having depressive episodes, manic episodes, a lot of anger towards everyone. I have bipolar disorder type II, and then I think I felt more out of control the older I got. Just kind of being rebellious and contrary, without really knowing why. Looking back, I think I had my first true, long depressive episode my junior year of high school and managed to graduate—that wasn’t an issue.
I went to college in Connecticut at a small school. I don’t think it would have mattered if I was there or somewhere else, I would not have been prepared to be in college. I don’t know what your experience is, but I think it’s the experience of a lot of people. You have these feelings and you have no idea where they’re coming from, why you have them, what to even call them or who to talk to about it. From junior year of high school towards senior year of college, I just kind of steadily got worse. I finally left my college in Connecticut after first semester of sophomore year.
I came home and really didn’t know how to explain to my parents, obviously, who were very startled at the time, what was going on with me. At the end of that semester where I had to make a decision about whether I was going back or withdrawing, I just withdrew. I ended up transferring to the University of Kansas. I had started dating somebody in high school, and we were on and off long-distance and local for a few years. I stupidly followed him to KU when he left his college to come back here.
That didn’t make things any better. I was still slipping, falling further and further into the depression. As our relationship started to unravel alongside me, I wasn’t going to classes, wasn’t taking care of myself, and was isolated from everyone. When our relationship finally ended—he was the person who ended it—I think I finally felt permission to just let go finally. It wasn’t really him that sparked the suicide attempt; I think it was just finally feeling like it was the last thing that was tethering me to the world.
I was living here, in Lawrence, when I attempted to take my own life. Without going into all the gory details, I suffered first and second degree burns to my face and my hands. No permanent damage to my lungs or my eyesight. If I weren’t dead, I should have been injured far worse than I was, but thanks to a couple of quick thinking strangers, they yanked me out of my car, and here I am sitting in front of you.
I was hospitalized for probably a week afterwards, and I didn’t get any counseling for months—partly because I think my parents were overwhelmed, but the mental health care in our country is horrible, and so it was months before insurance would approve any kind of counseling. Still no diagnoses. I wasn’t on any medication. It wasn’t talked about in my family at all, what had happened. As far as they knew, I was in a car accident, and that was that. No one talked about the D word: depression. Anything like that was just something to sweep under the rug and be ashamed of.
I just worked after that. After I was physically okay to work, I just worked on and off. Then I met my first husband and got married, and I seemed to be more stable and not having any issues. I had my daughter when I was 25. Of course, looking back, I realize, then, that there were times when I was having hypomanic episodes, staying up late for stretches at a time. When I was in that mode, I used to cope with that by moving furniture in the middle of the night. That was how I wore myself out. I moved furniture a lot during that time, looking back on it.
At that point, after I had my daughter, I went back to school, finally. Going to school full time, had a kid, had a marriage that was kind of starting to fall apart—cycling now, kind of more rapidly or more obviously, through depression and then having hypomanic episodes. I was 28 at this point, still in the middle the divorce from my ex-husband, and I had been pretty depressed for a few weeks towards the end of this semester that I was still on campus. This would have been in December of 2002 if I’m doing my timeline right, and then, in January, I started student teaching.
The day that I gave my first lesson, I blew it out of the water. I will not humbly talk about it at all. It was a great first lesson, and I was excited and the kids were excited. I taught for a full day, so every hour that I taught the lesson, I just kind of got into a groove. By the end of the day, I am just sky high, feel like I’m vibrating, just 180 degrees from where I had been the previous few weeks. That night, I stayed up almost all night and, the next day, I was supposed to meet with a psychiatrist on the recommendation of my counselor. I didn’t move furniture that night like I normally did, but I stayed up and I organized my walk-in closet so the clothes were grouped by color and type and length, and then I ended up in the shower scrubbing the grout with a toothbrush—all these kinds of crazy things that I used to do when I was in that state.
When I finally got to the psychiatrist’s office and I explained to him the last few weeks of my life, he just kind of laughed at me and was like, “Bipolar disorder.”
I didn’t really even know what that was. At that point, I had heard the phrase “manic depression,” but I didn’t know how it was treated, didn’t really know what it all entailed. I mean, I think, of all the mental illnesses, it sounds like kind of the fun, sexy one.
That was that. It was kind of a relief to know what was going on for the first time in all these years that I had struggled, but it was really scary. Like a lot of folks who are on medication, I was not always compliant at the beginning. I was still going through a divorce when I was diagnosed and trying to finish up student teaching and college, so if I needed to stay up all night to finish a paper, I would just not take my medication for a couple of days and then go back on it when I didn’t need to stay up all night.
I was 28 when I was diagnosed and now I’m 41, and it’s taken every one of those days and years since then to really figure out how to take care of myself. It’s not just medication, it’s not just seeing my counselor, it’s trying to get the right amount of sleep and surrounding myself with good people and trying to get exercise—even when you’re depressed and you just want to lay in bed and pretend the world doesn’t exist.
I’ve been hospitalized a few times since then. Never because I’ve actually attempted suicide again but, I think, if you are a survivor of a suicide attempt, it’s not that the experience necessarily never leaves you, it’s that urge that I don’t think ever leaves you.The same way, like, I’m a former smoker—that’s why you smelling like cigarette doesn’t bother me. Cigarette smoke doesn’t bother me, but that urge, that pull, I don’t think ever leaves you. I think I’m stable enough and cognizant enough about my circumstances and what’s going on that I can logically step back, but I don’t think that urge ever goes away. Depression, it distorts your thinking and makes you turn on yourself, so when you reach those depths of despair and self-loathing, it’s like an instinct that just pops up. It just seems so alluring and tempting, and even though I can sit there and logically spell out all of the reasons why I should not go down that path, it’s still really a struggle.
I mean, even as recent as a couple of weeks ago, I was just back in that moment thinking, “God, this would just be so much less painful if a truck ran over me right now,” so I think that, even with as much progress as I feel like I’ve made and I’m stable and I make better choices, that’s just always gonna be a part of me. No matter how much progress I make or how positive my life is or how many successes I have, even though I can look in the mirror and I can see the scars, physically, that are left over, it’s mentally and emotionally a scar, too, that never goes away.And any time I’m tempted to think, “God, how many times can you tell this story to people or talk about it? Surely people are just sick of hearing a story like that,” then when somebody hears my story and it makes some kind of impact on them, the story becomes less about me and my struggles and my successes—it’s helping somebody else. If it helps just one other person, to me, it’s worth sharing that story.
How heartbreaking is that isolation and that shame and that fear that people will judge you harshly for it? We don’t judge people—except for maybe lung cancer—we don’t judge cancer patients harshly. We don’t tell them to just be less cancerous or suck it up, you know?I feel passionate about sharing this story with you and any other venues that I have available to me, because mental illness is every bit as serious a medical condition as cancer or diabetes or any other visible illness that people have. I guess it’s why I ultimately reached out to you to be part of this and why, in my own life, I talk about it.
This month is National Suicide Prevention Month [ed. note: National Suicide Prevention Month takes place every September. More information here.] and I’ve been on Facebook every day posting statistics and articles. The one that I posted the other day was an article in which suicide attempt survivors were kind of sharing their secrets. You know, which is, “I didn’t do it because I didn’t love you,” and, you know, just their thoughts. It was astonishing to read it because I saw parts of my own experience and feelings in every one of their statements.
I shared it on Facebook and a family member of mine, who has tried to take her own life a few times, not only re-posted it on her Facebook page, but she specifically identified the numbers that she most related to. I could not be more proud of her for doing that and being so open when our huge family is on Facebook. To feel so empowered, to be honest and forthright about it—it’s something that is still shameful in American society. My background is, my mom is Vietnamese, so for one of my family members who has grown up even more deeply in the Vietnamese culture than I have—since I’m biracial—for her to openly admit something like that in a public forum where all of our family will see it is truly an act of bravery. That is not something, in Asian culture, you would ever discuss. That stays behind closed doors. It’s swept under the rug. That’s just not something that brings honor to the family. When I saw that the other day on Facebook, I thought, “This is good stuff.” At the risk of repeating myself and boring people with my story, I am going to keep shouting about this for the rest of my life. If it means my family member can open up and be proud of who she is and what her life experiences are and learn from it and share it, that’s good stuff.
I’m not a religious person; I do believe that things happen for a reason when they are supposed to—whether that is to teach us something, or for us to teach someone else. I truly feel like this was the second chance I was given. I survived for a reason, not just sheer dumb luck all of these years, but to help other people. For me, it’s worth baring the physical and emotional scars of it just to help other people not feel so alone and ashamed and isolated.
Des: You talked about something that I think a lot of people don’t really like to hear, but which is a huge component of the project, maybe. I’m not beating people over the head with it, but I think it’s important to let people know that this is probably not something that will ever go away, these thoughts. So, the question that I always ask is: is suicide still an option for you?
Tina: Absolutely not. Even as tempting as it might feel in a moment of crisis or despair. I think the other part about being so honest and forthright about my disorder, about my struggles, is that I feel accountable now to other people—not just to myself—so that, when I’m so honest about my struggles, people notice when I’m slipping. They notice when I don’t seem right, when I seem agitated, when I seem withdrawn. Having that support kind of keeps me honest about my health.
I also have a daughter. She’s almost 17. She’s awesome. She’s the cool kid I would have wanted to hang out with when I was a dorky teenager.
It’s interesting, because this whole notion of depression and despair came up recently. My dad and I were trading emails and he was saying—I don’t remember the context of the conversation—but he was like, “Your mom and I had some pretty dark moments when we thought you weren’t gonna make it. But you’ve hung on for better or worse and you have this beautiful daughter.”
I said, “You know what? She’s been my saving grace.” When I really did truly think about suicide when she was probably four or five, I wrote a letter to her explaining why I was gonna do what I was gonna do, and I still have that letter, just as a somber reminder. When I say she’s my saving grace, it’s not to burden her with some kind of responsibility to keep me alive, but she kept me alive long enough for me to save myself, if that makes sense.
As I said, I don’t burden her with some kind of responsibility to keep me alive, but she also, in her own way and probably doesn’t realize it, she is another way that I keep myself accountable. She knows about my struggles. I’m honest with her about that. I’ve made a promise to her, I’ve made a promise to my friends, I’ve made a promise to my parents that, if I ever get to a point where I feel like I just can’t be trusted with myself, even though I might think about it, I don’t have any plans. I don’t have any ideation. That if I ever feel scared of myself, that I’ll just check into the hospital and get myself sorted out.
I’ve gone there; mentally, it’s almost more just a passive thing. Like I was joking earlier, like just, “God, if a truck would hit me, everything would be okay.” But my friends, my family, my daughter, they keep me honest and accountable. Without them probably realizing. I’ve got to keep it all together for their sake as much as mine. I feel like I’ve gone through too much shit and made it this far to ever go back to that.
So, to answer your question, no, it is not an option, and if it ever feels like an option, that’s when I know I’m not right and I need more help.
Des: I ask that question because, usually, the response these days is, “Well, I don’t want it to be, but it’s that these thoughts will never go away.”
Tina: Well, I mean, I’ll explain it this way. To use an analogy, I quit smoking… god, it’s been seven years now. I quit on my 35th birthday, and I never have the urge to pick up a cigarette, but I will have moments during a stressful project or something at work or some kind of crisis or whatever, where I just stand there and acknowledge, “My god, I would be on my second pack of cigarettes by now if I still smoked.” It’s just that acknowledgment, but I never take it to the point of wanting to pick up a cigarette again, and I think that would probably be a good analogy to explain those suicidal thoughts and feelings. I acknowledge it, but I don’t take any action on it.
Des: What do you do instead on the bad days?
Tina: Sometimes I’m kind to myself and I just let myself be a blob on the couch binging on Netflix or reading. I do allow myself time to just kind of get it out of my system and give into it. I don’t have to be strong all the time. It’s okay to be sad or not functioning or whatever. I feel like I keep all the balls in the air when I am depressed, and I feel like I’m maybe functioning at maybe fifty percent. The house doesn’t get cleaned, I don’t wash my car, the dog isn’t walked as much as he should be, because I’m directing that 50 percent to getting my ass to work and being okay there. Sometimes it’s just allowing myself to have those bad days and being kind to myself.
Other strategies are acknowledging that I could start feeling overwhelmed and that I’m gonna direct my resources to the places that I most need them to be, which is functioning for my daughter and being able to go to work. If I feel like I’m slipping and not coping as well, then I see my counselor more often. Right now, I see her about once a month, but if it needs to be every week or every other week, I do that.
I’m still not always great with it, but I have gotten back to exercising. I did that by signing up for a half marathon that’s in two weeks, so I’ve been training for a few months for that.I’ve done this specific half marathon before. The back story: I had gotten into running several years ago when I was married to my second husband.
My best friend, who lives up in Iowa, said, “Hey, our town is doing its first ever half marathon. Do you wanna do it?”
I’m like, “Okay, sure.”
I trained for that, and during a tumultuous time in my life, that specific training plan and the exercise and getting out and being able to just zone out and focus on my breathing and my steps and my stride was really good for me. Then, when I fell off the wagon and quit running, that was when life got overwhelming again. A few months ago, I decided it feels really overwhelming to go from couch to thirteen miles, but I need to have that structure and a goal and a regular plan. It has been grueling and discouraging at times, and ugly, but it feels really good to have that structure and the goal and just feel more mentally clear.
As you may have experienced, medication does not do nice things to your body, and I’ve gained a lot of weight over the years from my medication. Depression is one of those things where weight gain and not feeling comfortable in your skin make you feel depressed, but then the depression keeps you from doing the things that you should or could do to make yourself feel better. So, slogging through this training and losing weight and feeling physically better about myself has just reinforced getting out there and sticking with it.
I have noticed lately when I’ve been getting stressed out—and there have been plenty of times recently with work—I find myself going up to the gym and sweating it out on the elliptical for an hour, or going out for a run. It’s nice lately to have the physical activity, the exercise as another tool in my arsenal of weapons to combat this. I feel like I really, lately, struggle more with the depression than I do the hypomania and the mania.
A lot of self-soothing and self-care is what I try to rely on to get myself through this. I’m not always great about it, but I do try to let people know that, hey, I am really not doing well right now, and it’s as simple as us going to see a movie or going out for a slice of pizza or whatever. I may not be very cheerful but, at least, if you can just be with me so I don’t feel alone, that’s helpful too. Those are all of my coping mechanisms, I think.
Des: Have you told your daughter specifically about your attempt? Maybe not details, but does she know?
Tina: Yeah. Yup.
Des: When did you tell her? How did you tell her?
Tina: Kids. It is hard to pull shit with kids. They just absorb and soak up—they observe and they absorb things more than we like to think. She has always had a sense that, and I don’t mean wrong in a bad way, that there’s always been something kind of off or wrong about mommy.
When she was young, I did my research about what’s age appropriate to tell kids. When I was struggling a lot with depression when she was younger—when I wrote my letter to her—she understood that there were times when mommy was sad and it did not mean that I loved her any less or that she had done anything wrong, but that I would go to the doctor, that I took medication to help myself feel better and be healthy. Never really had the discussion about it being bipolar disorder, but just explaining the depression part of it. She seemed to roll with that okay.
I’m trying to think when I finally told her about it. I think she would have been late grade school, so maybe 11—10, 11, 12—when I told her, not only about having bipolar disorder, but that I had tried to take my own life.
My memory is so horrible. I don’t know if I’ve ever gone into the nitty gritty details of that day. She knows I’ve suffered burns. She knows I was in the hospital for a while. Over the years, she’s learned about my history—about when I look back and have identified when I started having episodes, and she knows when I was finally diagnosed and what the circumstances were and the struggles that I’ve had since then and the medications that I take.
Like I said, she’s almost 17 now and she has her own struggles. She’s pretty accepting of it, and I’m pretty open about it with her. She knows that she can ask me questions about it. I’ve told her it’s okay to talk to other people about it. It’s not any kind of shameful secret that she has to keep about her mom.
It’s been kind of a gradual thing and age appropriate and what I thought she would be able to cope with. I’ve told her that my promise to her—I’ve verbalized my promise to her—that if I ever get really bad, that I will always promise to reach out and take myself to the hospital or whatever I need to do. I feel really strongly about being honest with kids about it too, in whatever way is appropriate for them to absorb, because that’s the age when kids are really struggling. Now that I recognize I was struggling with that at that time, to me it seems all the more important when I see my daughter struggling or I know other kids are struggling, that it’s good to share that information.
Des: Do you think it’s better to have had your experience to help understand your daughter’s experience and help her get through it? How valuable is your lived experience?
Tina: With respect to my daughter, it has meant everything to be able to put myself in her shoes and to remember how I felt at her age, having those struggles—but also to be cognizant of how my life circumstances as an adult and as her parent affect her, too, and to allow her space and time to be frustrated or unhappy with me and how that may have affected her. I think it has definitely been a blessing in that regard, not only to remember and understand how it felt as a 16-year-old struggling with that, but also now, as a parent, trying to be mindful of how my actions or inactions, my words or silence, contribute to her experience, as well—and remembering what I wish my parents had given me at that time.
Des: What other benefits have come from those experiences?
Tina: I think when you feel that acutely, it just makes you a more compassionate person. I know other compassionate people who have not tried to kill themselves, but it just gives you such a unique outlook on life, I think.When you have felt that deeply at the high and the low of it, I think it makes you less judgmental in some way. I’ve always felt out of place, out of sorts, so when you recognize people who have the same struggles or maybe feel as weird as I’ve always felt, there’s that kinship and that friendship and those connections.
I definitely think the biggest part of it, the mixed blessing of it, is just having enormous compassion for other people who are going through those struggles, and to not belittle those experiences that other people have. That’s their truth, that’s their reality, and I don’t think that, if I had not gone through the same struggles, that I would understand that or have the same respect and compassion for their experiences, either. The connections that I’ve made over the years because of this, I think, that’s what I take away from all of this.
Des: Glenn Beck—I was on his show a couple years ago—he asked me if I regretted my suicide attempt, and I was like, “No. It wasn’t awesome, but I couldn’t be who I am or where I am in my life without that.”
Tina: Yeah. Right. I think it’s the same question as, “If you could choose, would you not have bipolar disorder?”
To me, it’s such a silly question.To me, it’s like, I am not my disorder, but I’m not one without the disorder. I shape my disorder as much as it shapes me, and I don’t think you can really clearly draw a line and say, “Well, Tina’s this way because of the disorder,” or, “She would be a completely different person.” You just can’t separate them. It’s how I am, so why would I want to change that? It has set me on the path that I’m on. It has shaped who I am for better or worse, and I think to wish otherwise about yourself is to somehow deny—I don’t want to say deny your existence—but I think you just kind of have to embrace it and roll with it. You’re already wired to loathe yourself, so why even go down that rabbit hole and say, “Yeah, I regret what happened to me,” or, “I regret having to struggle with this?” It’s just part of your life experience. You either turn it into good, or you don’t.
Des: How did people treat you after your attempt? You mentioned that your family didn’t talk about it. You also talked a little bit just a minute ago about not wanting to belittle the experiences of others. Did you feel a lot of that, or did you have more support?
Tina: It just happened and nothing else. That was it. It was just this blip on the radar, and once it was kind of swept under the rug, there was no real talking about it after. I mean, even now, it’s been twenty years and I don’t think I’ve ever—even though my parents are more aware of my struggles and what people deal with with mental illnesses and my medication—I don’t know that I’ve ever sat down with them and said, “Hey this is how I got to that point.” It was just something that we just… it was like I had a cold and once it was over, it was over.
[As far as belittling], I think I was a young adult at that point, and I think sometimes parents have a tendency to discount what their kids are going through. It’s like, “Oh, whatever. It’s just a phase. You’ll get over it, and everybody goes through hard times.” I think those are probably—if you want to say belittling—it would be those kinds of remarks that would make you feel like you weren’t taken seriously or you didn’t feel validated. Somehow, you were wrong for having the feeling you have.
My favorite is, “Some people have it much worse. They’re dying of cancer,” or blah blah blah. Like, “You’re right, I do have a roof over my head. I have access to clean water. I am educated. I have health insurance. I have lots of these things. It doesn’t negate how I feel or what I struggle with. You can still be blessed in all of those ways and have a struggle.”If you want to classify it as belittling, that would fall under the umbrella of it.
I see it, even now, with my parents—sometimes with respect to my daughter. I had dinner with them recently and they asked how she was doing with school. I said, “Well, you know, she’s kind of having the same struggle with making friends and not liking her classes.” I could see we were about to go down this whole, “God, she’s been saying this for how many years now?” I could kind of sense that my parents were going down that road of discounting the gravity of it or the seriousness of it.
When you’re 16, that is important. Feeling socially isolated. Not liking your classes. Is it probably temporary? Absolutely. Is she having a crappy day and it suddenly kind of clouds her whole outlook? Sure. But I’m not going to discount that by telling her, “C’mon. You complain about this all the time.” It’s real. It’s her truth. It’s what she’s living with right now.
It’s funny that you asked me about that. I think, even now, after all that time, my parents maybe still have that kind of disconnect. At 16, things aren’t really that important, they couldn’t be that serious. But they are.
Des: They are, because your world’s so much smaller.
Tina: Yeah and, of course, at 16, you don’t have the benefit of perspective and experience or education. All of those things. You’re in the moment. Even as adults, we do that.
Des: I think that we forget that they’re actual people sometimes just ‘cause they’re tiny. I didn’t look at my brothers as real people. I was just like, “Oh, tiny humans, you stay sheltered for a minute.”Then my little brother had a big life experience when he was 16, and I was like, “Oh my god, oh god, you’re real. You have thoughts and desires and stuff.”That’s why I like to ask parents about how they talk to their kids about this stuff. I firmly believe it should be in schools. We need to be talking about these things from K-12.
Des: You said you were feeling it in elementary school. I’ve met plenty of people who were feeling it that young, and to deny it is harmful.
Tina: Yeah, because when you start rebelling or acting out or not behaving the way that your parents want you to, you internalize that “I’m a bad kid” thing. That takes you into adulthood.
Des: I think a lot about what it’s like to be the partner to a suicidal person. There’s a lot of suffering there, too, because we’re not exactly the nicest people when we’re struggling, and that’s hard.
Tina: My second husband said often that he felt so much pressure to be strong for me that he felt like he never had time and permission to have bad days or struggle himself, or to feel guilty for hating that I was depressed or angry. It definitely takes a toll on your partner.
Des: Yeah, and you don’t often get to hear those perspectives. Not that you often get to hear ours, either, to be fair. But it’s a more holistic viewpoint.
Tina: It doesn’t occur in a vacuum. For sure. It has ripple effects. No matter how much you try to contain it or minimalize the damage.
Des: What about your experiences with the medical industry in terms of your mental health?
Tina: Oh my goodness. We could write a whole ‘nother book about that stuff. I was actually ranting a little bit with my best friend about it, because she’s getting her master’s in counseling. She’s always heard my perspective about it, but of course, now, she’s gonna be on the other side of the couch at some point.
That’s one of my other blessings in life: I have access to good medical care, even if it is still somewhat expensive and insurance doesn’t cover all of it. When I’ve had to be hospitalized, it’s been mostly covered. My counseling sessions are covered. My medications are covered. It still can be frustrating, because once you’re flagged in the system as using those medical benefits, the mental health benefits, it’s like a scarlet letter that you have to bear.
I have been denied for life insurance.Because I’ve been treated, because I’ve been hospitalized, because I use my mental health benefits. They’re like, “Well, you’re a risk that we can’t underwrite.” I’m thinking, “That makes no sense. How am I a risk? If I am paying you premiums, you pay nothing if I kill myself, so doesn’t it benefit you to just collect my premiums for as long as you possibly can? How can you penalize me for taking advantage of the benefits that I need in order to stay alive? To be healthy?”
It’s just that weird paradox. If you are blessed enough to have mental health benefits with your insurance and you use them, you do get penalized. I’ve told insurance agents before, when I’ve been denied for a life insurance policy for my child, “Do you realize this is not going away?” I’ve actually posed that question to the insurance agent. I’ve said, “This isn’t going away.”
He’s like, “Well, we want to see a few years of stability and we could reconsider you.”
I’m like, “I’m never going to stop taking medication. This isn’t a one-time deal. This is my life. This is like me taking insulin shots for the rest of my life if I were diabetic. I’m not gonna stop using my benefits.”
It shouldn’t be so difficult. You should be able to get the care that you need to be a healthy, productive human being without it counting against you in some other way. It’s not like an insurance company is gonna be like, “We can’t give you a policy because you have erectile dysfunction and we need to see a few years of stability in that area before we can underwrite you,” you know? You might drop dead if you have an erection lasting four hours or more.
It’s silly and it’s angering to me but, like I said, I have resources. Even though there have been times in my life when I didn’t have very good medical coverage and I would not refill some of my medication because the copay was so high, now I’m not in that position, and I do have family who would gladly step in and cover the cost of my medications.
I’ve looked up the retail value of my medication. I don’t make enough in a month to pay what that would be. It just disgusts me and it angers me. I could rant about it and be angry about it every single day because it just makes me sick that there are people living in the shadows in our country who desperately need access to counselors, to psychiatrists, to nutritionists, to medication, and where they end up is in the streets or hooked on drugs or in jail to finally get medical attention for their issues. There’s something so desperately wrong about that. That’s my rant about our whole medical system.
It’s not just the insurance—even within the medical profession, there are still times that the very terms we use to describe people who have mental illnesses maybe is itself discouraging and stigmatizing, too. There’s a lot of room for improvement.
It’s funny, the timing of all of this, your question, because my best friend is in the thick of taking her classes right now. She said, “I’m really struggling with how we talk about people with mental illnesses.” She’s like, “I don’t like thinking of calling you somebody with a disorder.”
I’m like, “It’s just my flair at this point. You can call it a disorder or whatever, but it’s just part of my charm now.”
Des: It’s obnoxious, though.
Tina: It is. There’s just so much still more to do and to think of. The other way that I feel blessed is, even with as much progress as we still have yet to make, I would rather have bipolar disorder in 2016 than I would in 1916, because that would have been a death sentence for me. My parents would have locked me away in an institution and the key would have been thrown away, and I would have been subjected to shock treatment in a way that was not kind. I would have been subjected to cold water therapy. Maybe a lobotomy. It’s barbaric to think about how people were treated. Even in the 1970s, they were still doing really barbaric ice pick type lobotomies. It’s frightening.
Des: Do you practice a faith? If so, how does your experience work within that?
Tina: I have a pretty interesting background where that’s concerned. I do not practice any faith right now. My step-dad adopted me, so he’s kind of my dad, but I’m still in touch with my biological dad. His family is an offshoot of the Mormon church, so I was confirmed and baptized in the Mormon church. When my mom remarried to my adoptive dad, I went to church on my own, and they were totally fine with it. It was just kind of like, “Whatever, it’s your journey.” It was kind of a social thing, too. My best friend in grade school went to the same church. Her parents would pick me up on Sunday morning and I would go with them to church.
I quit the church. It probably coincided with when I really started having issues with my biological dad; I just kind of became truly estranged from him. I quit going to church. At 10, you don’t know what the word “hypocrisy” is. You maybe haven’t heard it, but you recognize it when you see it. I felt like there was a lot of hypocrisy around church. I think it was being in church and hearing those things, and seeing how my parents fought with each other. My biological dad is an elder in his church. I would spend summers with him. We would go to church every Sunday morning and he would give this impassioned, powerful, inspiring sermon, and then we’d go home and he had a horrible temper and he was terrible to my mom.
After a while, I just couldn’t reconcile all of that. When I was about 10 or 11, I didn’t just stop going to church, I called my church and had my name removed from the rolls. I’ll never get to go into those cool Mormon temples in Utah because I’m not officially a member of the church anymore.
I had that background and then, my mom is from Vietnam, as I mentioned before. I don’t think they were strict Buddhists, [but she] grew up with that whole philosophy and outlook on life. My mom’s been a U.S. Citizen—she’s lived in the United States for four plus decades—and her outlook on life is informed by her Vietnamese upbringing in Buddhism and an American Christian kind of outlook on life.
I was never really pressured, necessarily, to go one way or the other. Obviously, it was important to my biological dad that I be brought up in the Mormon Church for part of the way, but it’s just not part of my life. I know people whose faith, from a practicing religious standpoint, takes them through a lot of bad times and they embody their Christian principles and values in the way that they should, with grace and purpose and compassion. I have the utmost respect for that and know when I’m going through a bad time and they say, “I’m gonna say a prayer for you,” to accept that graciously and not feel that it’s condescending or push it away or say, “I don’t believe in that”—to reject their kindness in the way that they know to express it towards me. ThatI don’t have an issue with, but if I subscribed to any faith, it would probably be more Jedi-like. It would be the force.
Truly, I’m not an atheist, I’m not an agnostic, I don’t claim to know what makes the world tick or if there’s some kind of higher purpose or being. I truly do believe that things happen for a reason in our lives when they are supposed to. That people enter and leave our lives for a reason, whether that is for us to teach them or for us to be taught by them. That’s just kind of how I roll with all of that. It’s maybe this kind of weird hodgepodge of the Force and my Mormon background and Buddhism and just what I’ve kind of evolved and cobbled together over the years… I think there’s probably work to be done in formal religions and churches in the United States about mental illness, too, and health—not just through prayer, but I think there’s probably the same stigma and struggle.
Des: Is there anything you might wanna say to someone were reading your story?
Tina: I think I would tell somebody that—it’s maybe counterintuitive, but—there is strength in what they might perceive as being a weakness. If you can get up every single day and make a decision to live when your mind can give you every reason not to, that’s profound strength and courage.
I have heard people challenge me and say, “Well, suicide’s the most selfish thing you could ever do.” I challenge that person, in response, to consider the following: we have thousands of years of biological wiring to survive. That’s our instinct. What must a person be going through for that instinct to turn on them? If you live with that cross instinct, where your instinct to survive is turning on you, if you make a choice every day to just give a big “f you” to that instinct, it’s extraordinary. People should not feel that they are weak or somehow less because of their struggles, because of their disorder or whatever life circumstances that they might be dealing with. It’s the complete opposite of that.
That’s true for any suicide survivor, whether you are the survivor of your own attempt or if you are a survivor who lost somebody to suicide, there’s no shame in that. There’s no weakness in that. I want the parent or child or spouse who lost someone to suicide to know that their loved one was not weak.
That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.
Tina’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 Headquarters Counseling Center for providing a venue in which to do our interview. Thanks also to Crystal Wilson for providing the transcription to Tina’s interview.