Vanessa McDanielis a suicide attempt survivor.
"I survived a suicide attempt."
Vanessa McDaniel is a past-nurse and current real estate broker, originally from Taos, NM. She was 46 years old when I interviewed her in Nashville, TN, on December 9, 2016.
I was born to parents that were alcohol and drug abusers. My mom was an undiagnosed bipolar alcoholic, and my dad was a biker drug addict.
I was born very early. I was very small. Back then, they said that babies like me wouldn’t make it. They told my mom that she was having a miscarriage. When I made it through the night, they said that I would be abnormally short, as in dwarf size, and completely retarded. The family joke always was “they got one of those right.”
Vanessa: And obviously I’m not short.
It was one of those starts. It’s been that way my whole life, constantly trying to find a place that I fit, worried about being left all the time. Back in the day, they put you in an incubator and nobody touched you, so you didn’t bond with anybody.
The first memory that I have is about two years old. I’m in the back seat and my dad is driving and he probably shouldn’t have been. There’s something not okay happening. The stories go that they split up because they were just too volatile between the both of them. When I was two, my mom set fire to the house and put me out on the street. She went to a hospital for a while, and I went to be cared for strangers.
Apparently those strangers were very nice and well-to-do, and they wanted to adopt me. My mom said no, and I often wondered, later, how different would it have been. Maybe all the things were already set. Maybe they were already in there. Maybe they weren’t. It’s hard to tell what is hard wired, original factory shipped, and what is aftermarket. In our brains, it seems like it all becomes one in the end anyway, so maybe it doesn’t matter. I don’t know.
I had a really rough childhood. There was a lot of violence. People who are living like that tend to have other people who are that way around them, so there was never a safe adult anywhere. There was incest. There was molestation—all the way from people I didn’t know to people I did. There was murder. My father murdered somebody when I was living with him for a while. There was court. It went on and on and, somewhere in there, I kept trying to hold on. I don’t know how I got through it. I have no idea. There’s some kind of intestinal fortitude, I guess, because I see other people who didn’t make it through at all. I don’t know why I got to be okay at the end and why other people don’t.
I left home when I was 12. The first time that I attempted, I was 12. I took an entire bottle—one of those big old bottles of aspirin. Then I got scared, and I told my mom and she yelled at me. I was afraid that she was going to be even more mad, so I didn’t tell her how sick I was, so I didn’t go to a doctor. I didn’t go anywhere. My ears rang so loud for the next few days that I couldn’t hear anything. Later, I came to know that that’s a sign that you have really done some damage with that aspirin.
That’s kind of how my life went. I spent a lot of time trying to be small and not be seen. I spent a lot of time trying to figure out how to fix my mother’s mental illness and not succeeding. More so than the violence, I think it was that that was so erosive to my mind and heart: the constant fluctuation in her, never knowing what I was going to get. You could come home from school one day, and she would be fine. The next day, you come home, say the same thing, do the same thing, and wham. I wrote a poem once about saying goodbye to my hair as it left by the handful, because that’s how it worked. She used to tell me that I needed to cry, that it would make me feel better, and dig her fingers into my shoulders. I didn’t know that that was abusive. And for all of that, she had some of the most amazing qualities that I’ve ever encountered. She was incredibly musically gifted. She had a bright, shiny smile that made people just gravitate toward her—she showed this person this piece, this person that piece. Most people never saw the pieces we saw at home.
So at 12, I decided that I’d be better off somewhere else. That was not necessarily a swift move. Ended up on the street. I slept in flophouses and alleys, and the things that happen to you there are unpleasant, at best. The drugs and the alcohol, they’re there right away. Boom. I think the first time that I got falling down drunk was about that age—tequila. I think I passed out on the floor face down for 18 hours. It was bad. I got up the next day and said, “Huh, I think I’ll do that again.” That’s how crazy addiction is, because normal people would have gone, “Wow, that wasn’t very fun.” I said, “Wow, let’s do that again, because it made me go away.” It made me go away, and I needed to go away.
I ended up in a children’s state-run home. I ended up a ward of the state, and I ended up in a children’s home. I ended up married at the age of 16—to somebody who was one of the counselors at that group home. You know, once you’ve been a victim, the predators can smell you. I mean, somehow there’s some invisible tattoo on my forehead or, I don’t know, but boy, they just found me everywhere. I just wanted somewhere to be safe. I just wanted someone to love me, and I did it all the wrong way. All the wrong way.
By the time I was 20, I was married again for the second time, and he was military and we had a beautiful boy who I had no idea what to do with. I was not a very good mom for a lot of his childhood because I just had no idea what I was doing. How would I know? Who would have taught me that?
The drinking continued. I never did a lot of anything else. I guess it wasn’t available or I didn’t have money or it just wasn’t in my area—there was some of that but not excessively so or to warrant its own side note. After I had my son, I had my first of three really severe back surgeries. I didn’t put it together at the time, but when the pain meds stopped coming, the alcohol ramped up again. I’m sure that they are connected, but I didn’t think about it at the time.
I blew up my marriage, which was what I did with everything. Just blew everything up. I was so busy being tough that I don’t think anybody could find me. That’s what I had to do to survive the places and the things. I had to be tougher than anything else that came at me. But what that does to you is brutal. It costs. It costs. You pay for that, and you pay in not being able to trust or feel. You don’t notice if the sun’s out or not because it doesn’t matter. My therapist and I have spent years deconstructing all those walls and all those boxes that I’ve put everything in.
Middle-twenties, I went to nursing school, and my son’s father and I divorced. I moved halfway across the United States. I was sober for a little while because, somewhere, I knew there was some issues. It didn’t last very long. Every time I tried to do something different, it was like the monster just came up and dragged you back. There was nothing you could do.
I started drinking a lot in my middle twenties, and every time I drank, I would get angry. Up to 20, I was the victim. After 20, I was the victimizer. That tough thing came out and I would have a couple drinks and start pounding on people. Or things. Apparently, it didn’t matter. One place barred me because I attacked the juke box. It probably didn’t play what I wanted it to, and so I just punched it or something. Another place said, “Don’t you remember pulling that girl off the bar backwards?” Well, no. That happened to me a lot, and each episode, as it happened and I found out, took another piece of me and put another piece of shame in its place. I already had an awful lot of that. I didn’t really need help with any more.
I had a couple of attempts that ended me up in hospitals and somehow, I would talk them into not confining me. My mom used to say that my father could sell ice to Eskimos. I got it. I got that, too. I have that ability to do some kind of verbal play and somebody goes, “Okay.” Plus, there’s a lot of people out there who don’t have any idea about any of those things, so it’s easy. So, when somebody should have gotten me some help or forced me to get help, it didn’t happen and I continued.
Right before I got sober, a month before I got sober, I had a really severe attempt and my husband found me. In the ambulance, they had to bring me back. I woke up in four-point restraints and I was pissed. “Oh!” I thought, “Wow, really, I can’t even do that? You won’t even let me have that? What do you want from me?” That was what I said: “God, what do you want from me? I can’t do this.”
A month later, I went to jail to serve a sentence for a DUI. My face and the windshield had a very close encounter. There, I had no power, and for some reason, the judge allowed me to go to a women’s treatment jail. They brought meetings in—recovery meetings—every night, and they were speaker meetings, so you couldn’t even say anything. You weren’t allowed to talk. You just had to sit there and listen, which is something I don’t do very well. But I had to. I didn’t think any of that got in.
When my husband came to pick me up, on our way home, we passed a liquor store and a gas station and he was getting gas and I went into the liquor store and I got a bottle, like I always had. Brought it home, made a drink, put one swallow in my mouth and, I can’t tell you why, but I spit it out and I poured the rest of it out, and I haven’t had a drink since.
That was fourteen years and three months ago. That was a higher power. That was some last ditch effort from the universe to go, “Okay, really, you’ve got to get this this time.” And I did. I threw myself into recovery like I had never throw myself into anything because I thought, “Okay, if you can teach me how to live, I’ll do it. Whatever it is. I will stand on my head while I do it if that’s what you tell me I have to do so that I don’t have to feel like this anymore.”
I thought that was the problem. I thought that’s the problem I’d always had. I just needed to be in recovery.
It has given me the ability to have a lot of joy and it’s changed everything. However, it was the symptom, not the problem. The problem was trauma. The problem was the disaster I grew up in. The problem was, how do you take a kid who’s been through this and expect that she’s going to be anything but a mess? The fact that I’m here and alive and pretty okay and whole is absolutely miraculous. To me and to others. I don’t know why I got to be okay—mostly.
I’ve had a lot of therapy, a lot of therapy. I decided that, if I was going to do this, I was going to do it all the way. I wasn’t going to stop until I had uprooted every last piece of shit thing that they left in me, like, you’re not winning. Watch. Watch. All that hatred that I had been pouring out on everybody else and on myself, I turned that energy into working. Seeing. It’s been an incredibly hard journey. I’ve done a lot of EMDR. I’ve done a lot of child trauma work. While I was doing that, I had months where I would have flashbacks that would just take me out, and where I thought, “God, if this is how it’s going to be, I don’t want to do this.”
Through all of these things, there’s this thread. It’s like this dark thread that comes underneath everything, and it comes up and says, “This isn’t really working. Nobody really gives a shit. You’re too old, too fat—too something.” Sometimes I listen. Sometimes I listen. Sometimes I can’t help it. It knows me really well.
I spent a lot of my life very invested in feeling like my mother was crazy and that’s why she did all those things, and I made myself as normal as you could get. I was never going to be crazy. I was never going to be any of those things. I can handle it. Watch. That’s how I’ve lived my whole life, and that’s the person most people know. Until now, I haven’t talked a lot about my own struggles.
Eight years ago, I lost my mom to suicide, and it turned my world inside out… The last couple years have been really hard. I went through a divorce. I lost my mom. My son, my grown son, was out on the street doing drugs and I was terrified for him. In the middle of all that, I just kept trying to put on foot in front of the other.
This year, I married the love of my life. Six months ago. Married the love of my life. Most stressful thing I ever have done in my entire life—I mean, god, why did I do that? Because I’d never had a wedding, so I wanted one. But I wouldn’t listen to anybody, and everybody who’d already done it knew that and told me that. I had to do it anyway. And the summertime came, and there was a lot of adjustments living with somebody. We didn’t live together before we got married.
Somewhere, at the end of August, all of a sudden—it really felt like out of the blue—I got flattened by a wave of depression like nothing I have ever encountered before. I’ve been through a lot of shit. Three major back surgeries where I had to learn how to walk again. I’ve lost a lot. I’ve gained a lot. I don’t know what’s different this time. I don’t know why it’s so encompassing. I’ve gone through depressions through the years, obviously, but nothing like this.
My therapist said yesterday, “What triggered this? Where did this come from? I’ve never seen you that black.”
I said, “I don’t know, this feeling that I’m trapped, that it’s never going to be what I want it to be, that I’m never going to be okay, that I’ve been faking it my whole life and someone’s going to find out. And all that value that I think I have isn’t there. That’s what the voice in my head says.”
Last night I put a post on Facebook, and I did it because in my industry—I sell high-end real estate—nobody wants to hear this. Nobody wants to hear that their agent is in recovery and suffers from depression and had a crazy childhood and sometimes thinks the world would be better without her. Everything’s about what you look like and how well you do and what the bottom lines are.
I’ve spent my whole life being somebody else. For you, for you, for you. Maybe the very best thing I can do for myself is just to say where I am, to be brave enough to do that. That’s why I’m doing this. For me, and for anybody else who doesn’t know that the sun comes back if you hang on again.My mom died in one of those dark places that we go through, where you can’t see anything else. And I’m not going. I’m not going. I’m not going. I’m not going. I didn’t do all this to go like that. But if I’m not going, then it has to be different, just like all those years ago. It can’t be the same as it’s been.
I don’t know what that looks like. I don’t know what it means. I don’t know what the next thing is. I’m right at that life-changing place. I don’t know what’s coming, but I know that telling the truth and being honest and having integrity are the things that I’m built on, and I can’t do anything but that anymore. It’s not okay. It’s harmful to me to not say what I really think. It’s like the whole world is full of all of this “be this way.” Why? Why is our value directly connected to somebody else liking what we say? Because we do that to ourselves. We do that to our children. We do that to each other. Society doesn’t say, “It’s okay if you have a mental health day.”
My husband and I are both on the board of directors for AFSP, the Middle Tennessee chapter here, and I’ve spent a lot of time since I started doing that really looking and listening and trying to understand better. We have a long way to go, a long, long way to go. We have a lot of people dying because they don’t think it’s okay to say, “I’m not doing well.” Because we don’t make it okay. So I’m going to make it okay.
In my little corner, I’m going to say, “I’m not doing well right now. Currently. And I have the makeup on and I have the nice car, and do I look like what somebody would think somebody with depression or PTSD looks like? Bet not, but I am. I’m the person that on Thanksgiving day, I had to tell myself, “No, you are not going to run into that embankment.”” Because sometimes it just comes. The depression is there and it’s nobody’s fault, and I didn’t create it, and I can’t undo it.
It’s like society, and the world at large, it feels to me like they think mental illness of any kind is simply a choice that somebody’s making. Are you fucking kidding me? Who makes that choice? Who wakes up and says, “You know what? Today I think I’ll have a real bastard of a day.” Nobody. It’s fear. That’s what’s underneath all the crap that everybody gets for it. It’s fear. It’s fear from the person out there that somehow they’re going to catch it. It’s fear of dealing with something that real and that in your face.
When someone steps up to you and you say, “How are you?” and they say, “I’m suicidal,” what do you say to that, right? People freak out. They don’t know what to do because they’re not used to it. They’re not used to talking about what’s real. They’re not used to talking about how we fix it. We all just go, “Psh, put it in the corner over there and put it in the closet and it’s not there.” And then that person’s dead, and everybody goes, “I never saw it coming.” Well, yeah, you did. You didn’t want to see it.
I’m not blaming. I mean, I understand. It’s not a fun conversation and it is scary. It scares me when someone tells me that. It makes my heart hurt. I want to help. So why don’t we start asking the question that really needs to be asked: how do I help? When somebody tells me this, I can say, “What do I do?” There’s an idea. Because the person who thinks it’s not okay to tell you that they’re in this place might, if you knew enough to give them that place, see you as a safe place.
I did marry my soulmate, and he’s the first person since I was a little girl who I let in there, who I showed that to. And he stayed with me. He didn’t try to fix it. He sat next to the bed, next to me on the bed, and held my hand and just was there. I don’t need someone to fix me. I’m not broken. I have some interesting patched together seams, but I’m not broken. I’m just really real. That’s hard. It’s hard to be. It’s hard to be.
I guess, at my age, I feel like, after everything I’ve been through, you didn’t kill me yet, so I might as well live the rest of my life as who and what I want to be. How I really want to live. Authentic. That question, “Who are you?” Well, if you asked me that question ten years ago, I’d have given you a totally different answer, and maybe I still don’t know. That’s probable. I have to work to do. I’m okay with that. I’m good with work. I’m good at it. I can do that part. Once I figure out what I need to do. I figured this out just yesterday. I got it. That’s why I did this today anyway, because somebody else out there thinks that who they are and what they are is not okay, and that’s bullshit. Somebody else needs to know that just because you look like you’re okay, it doesn’t mean that you are.
My sister talked to me last night, and she’s had a lot of the same life things. I said, “Maybe I shouldn’t go do this tomorrow because I don’t really have a lot of hope to give right now. What am I going to say? Like, “Oh hey, I’m right there now?””
She said, “Your depression isn’t your fault and it doesn’t take away what you’ve already done.” She said, “When you’re in that place, do you want to hear somebody who goes, “Oh yeah, now I’m all fabulous and sorry you’re not?””
I was like, “No, not really. Those people I kind of want to throat punch.”
We don’t hit people anymore. That’s what my sponsor says. I’m not allowed. Sometimes I want to. That’s probably good. At least it’s real.
I was the lived experience speaker for our chapter walk last year, and that was the first time I had talked about my own experiences, and the attempts have been numerous, all the way from “not a big deal” to “that’s it.” I believe that, if I go back down that road, I won’t make it out again. I’ve lived my nine lives. This is it. So if this is it, I want to get as much freedom in my head, in my heart, and in my life as I can. Freedom from my own perceptions and freedom from everybody else’s.
Why is it that what somebody else thinks is running my life? What is wrong with that? Why do I think that’s okay? Why do I think so little of myself that what you think takes precedence? Those are all good questions. I don’t have all the answers to those. I have answers to some of those.
For me, the answer is to keep going. When that dark thing comes, I tell somebody. Hardest thing in the world to do. Oh my god, that phone might weigh five thousand million pounds, but I tell somebody. I raise the alert, say, “Uh oh, everybody look out, here it comes,” because I don’t know what else to do. I talk about it. I try to find people who are okay with talking about it, because some people aren’t, and that’s okay. I mean, that’s their choice, and I certainly don’t want to cause harm or trigger somebody, so if somebody can’t, I’m good with that, but I have to have people who can.
On Thanksgiving Day when I felt that way, I called my sister. She didn’t say, “Let’s call 911,” which sometimes you need to, okay? I’m not saying that you don’t, but it’s not always helpful, and being committed is not always helpful. Sometimes it makes it worse. We have a lot of broken things in how we deal with mental health, and we have a long way to go to make that better.
It’s not a character thing. In fact, some of the most beautiful people I know, the most amazing people I know, have some form of mental illness. So why can we not say it like we say heart attack or hernia? What’s the problem? I mean, if everybody’s afraid, well, guess what? I’ll put it in your face again. And again and again and again and again. Because it’s got to stop. We can’t keep making people feel that way. It’s not right. The shame is not supposed to be there. That shame actually belongs to other people. It belongs to the people who have given it to you through one avenue or another, but it’s not ours, and we have a choice whether we pick it up. Just like I have a choice if I’m going to pick up a drink. I have a choice if I’m going to pick up that shame too. It’s my choice. It might be a hard choice to make until I get better sometimes, and sometimes I have to wait a minute, but it’s a choice—at least for me.
Today I don’t want to die. Three days ago, I did. Last night, it was a little iffy. It changes. I just have to hang on until this wave is better, because it always does get better. It does. It always gets better.
I wish I could go back and tell my mom that. On that night when all she could see was the dark, I wish I could tell her, “Tomorrow the sun will come back. You don’t believe me but it will.”
I have to remember that for myself. Tomorrow the sun will come back, and look, it’s back. I woke up this morning and the sun was out. And I thought, “Ah, that’s wonderful.” I don’t know if that all makes any sense, but that’s the story that I own, so there is no wrong or right about it. It’s just mine.
Des: Talk to me about what it feels like to be on both sides of that spectrum of survivorship.
Vanessa: It’s hard. There’s a lot of years that I never talked about my own attempts because my mom died by suicide. My aunt died by suicide. That was enough people freaked out about that. I sure wasn’t going to tell them the other.
Then, once I started being more active, I felt like when there’s a whole big group of survivors that have lost someone they love so much, and I’m one of the people who has tried to do that to themselves, there was fear—fear of not being accepted, of them being angry at me, somehow. It’s kind of like when I got into recovery and I was a member of one recovery program and then ended up needing another one that’s kind of the opposite across the hall. I felt like I was the enemy amongst them. It feels like that sometimes.
Sometimes it’s miraculous, because I can tell somebody who’s grieving something that helps them because I know what it felt like, why I did it, what I was thinking. I can tell a bereaved mom that I wasn’t thinking about anybody else. It wasn’t about them. That my choice to do that was about me. That, if I thought about my family, it was simply to think that they would be better off.
I can tell them that this isn’t a personal gotcha for everybody left behind, and I felt that way when my mom died. I was like, “Oh my god, why would you do this to me?” She didn’t do it to me. It was the only thing she could see. She tried every other way, and she just couldn’t find her way out. That deserves sorrow, not blind rage. That’s the other thing. I can tell people that the rage at attempters isn’t useful. It’s not going to get you what you want.
I think balancing both sides of that—of being a double winner, that’s what I call it—is hard, but it gives me a unique ability to help people because I really understand all the way through.
Des: Is suicide still an option for you?
Vanessa: Yeah. A few years ago, I would have said no. Right now, I can’t promise I’m staying, but I’m trying. It’s not the option I want. It’s the last ditch if I can’t get out kind of option. I hope not.
Des: What good things have come from your experiences?
Vanessa: That’s a good question. I’ve actually been able to help a lot of people because there’s almost nothing I haven’t had happen, or gone through, or been around. Nothing makes me surprised. Nothing makes me freak out on people. Nothing makes me go, “Oh god.” People can talk to me about almost anything. Sometimes I go too far with that and I do a lot of caretaking and it tends to really wear me out. I’m not very good at figuring out when I should have stopped and I’m all the way off the cliff.
There’s the strength there that’s born out of fire—for people who have walked through these things and are still here, there’s a magnificent layer of strength. Sometimes we forget it’s there, but it’s bright and shiny and sparkly, if you could see it. I’m a visual person. I visualize everything, so I visualize it as some kind of armor that we don’t even know we’re wearing. It’s beautiful in a heartbreaking kind of way—that beauty that makes you cry, not the beauty that makes you go, “Oh, wow.”
Thanks to Alison Rutledge for providing the transcription to Vanessa’s interview.