Zoe: I grew up in two pretty dysfunctional households and developed an anxiety disorder at, like, 7. I was depressed all through adolescence and kind of trudging along through school. Then, when I was fifteen, my best friend assaulted me. He was my only real support system at that point, and it just threw me. I took some pills and ended up calling him and he talked me out of it. I went to the hospital and then I moved in with him because I refused to go home to either of my parents. His mom offered to let me stay with them, so I lived with them for a year. During that time, I was hospitalized again, but then I went off to college and never looked back.
Des: You said he assaulted you. What was it like to live with him?
Zoe: He blamed me a lot for the suicide attempt, and kind of stopped speaking to me after I went into the hospital the second time. It just broke my heart. I wasn’t diagnosed with it then. They actually wanted to diagnose me as Borderline, but really, it was PSTD. I was diagnosed with it, finally, a couple of years ago after another assault. Living with him was hard because I didn’t feel like I could talk about anything, and even the people who were taking care of me and that I trusted were like, his mother, and I just didn’t have the positive influences in my life that I do now.
I was suicidal for a lot of that year, but had kind of committed to not going back to the hospital. That seemed to work, but I developed a really bad eating disorder. But, you know, survivors learn how to cope...
I just didn’t have an outlet to talk about trauma which, I think, has kind of guided my research interests. The people I’ve encountered have [little understanding] of trauma and the need to look at those histories, even if they’re not concrete events, [instead of] like, “Yeah. Borderline. That works.” Especially with teenage girls and queers. There’s always a shocking lack of empathy, though those people certainly can be found, and I’m very grateful to the ones that I did find. We’re not supposed to talk about our trauma, and I don’t think I have anything to be ashamed about.
Des: Trauma-informed care. Talk about that.
Zoe: I think that the trend toward biological bases as a paradigmatic stance has led a lot of people in the clinical fields to stop—how do I wanna say this?—just stop asking what’s wrong. In public health, there’s this idea of Western medicine as very much like, you walk in and [they ask], "Where does it hurt?" as opposed to, "Why are you here?" We get that so much in treatment: "What are your symptoms?" and not, "What’s happened?"
[We also need to have] a different understanding of what trauma is, beyond a single event, like the chronic traumas of oppression and mental illness. Being mentally ill is a trauma in itself, just like any other chronic disease. [It's important to have] a little bit of compassion for reasoning, and for the reasoning that suicidal people use, instead of, "No, you’re wrong," [we need to say], "This obviously makes sense to you. How does it make sense to you? Let’s find out more about that."
I’m [not] a big fan of brain chemicals, figuring that shit out. I'm not anti-psychiatry in the least, but I think helping people make sense of their narrative has a lot more power in it than telling someone that they have personality disorder or, "Here, take these pills and that’ll fix it."
I guess I’ve been in treatment for a number of years, and I’ve seen a lot of people not get the full attention they deserve—the holistic approach that I think is required. Don’t get me started on the mental health system.
Des: But why not? Tell me more about what you think of diagnoses. What purpose do they serve?
Zoe: ...I’m very pro-medication. I completely support everyone I know who is against it. I certainly believe that it helped save my life, and I think diagnoses are useful as far as helping guide that sort of treatment and in terms of research having places to go and, you know, do the whole scientific thing. One of the smartest things I ever heard from one of my social workers was the that the diagnoses are only as good as they are useful to the client, and I think that’s really true and, for some people, that’s really empowering, being able to find a community and feel that. But I think a lot of things are more related to trauma, and as we get into it and understand it, there’s so much research coming out about the ways that trauma can re-wire your brain. We just don’t know how malleable things really are, and [that's going to be a discovery process].
I think clinging to diagnoses is dangerous but, I think, for some people, they have a purpose. I think it has a lot to do with that refocusing on, “How can I help?” instead of, “What’s wrong?” Does this actually serve the person? I think we too readily feel the need to diagnose without really [collecting] as full of a background or intake as is deserved. At least, for me personally, there were just questions that weren’t asked that would have changed everything about my treatment, and a lot of it comes down to how we treat girls and their feelings.
I don’t know if it’s medical school or what, but we have the ability to so quickly write off teenage girls as either hormonal or inherently mentally ill. There’s just this mindset they all have that whatever I’m feeling can’t possibly be reasonable, that if suicide is on the table for me, then all of my other emotional processing is as unsound, as opposed to [understanding that] there’s all of this stuff going on, and I’m that desperate. It’s hard when you see people all day and, of course, you just want to do the simple thing, but I think it really shows a lack of empathy more than anything else. There's this general misogynistic concern with women’s feelings being invalid.
When I was refusing to go home, no one ever really got too far into why I didn’t want to be there. People were very concerned with making me go home. I had a social worker who was just insistent. I don’t know if she just thought I was being a bratty child or whatever, but I wasn’t prepared to go back into a place that made me feel unsafe. I mean, that is how I got [to the hospital] in the first place.
I was very fortunate to have a lot of savvy with the system. My dad is a psychiatrist. I started therapy when I was nine. [I knew] to just be smart and strong about it, and it kills me that so much of how far I’ve made it has been because of these privileges, and how many people are left behind without it, and how cruel the system can be.
Des: You talked a lot about advocating for yourself. How do you do that?
Zoe: I advocate for myself by never doubting my feelings. I have to hold on and maintain that they are my truth, that they’re valid, and I’m having them because of serotonin or because of something someone did or because I’m on my period. They’re real, and no one can take that away from me. [I have to] just know and be secure in that. These days, I’m more secure in how my history has informed who I’ve become. I have to know that I’m stronger than that, and the people who would like to stand in my way of getting better even when they think that they’re helping. These last couple of years has been a lot of learning about cutting toxic relationships and truly starting to embrace that I don’t need people in my life who aren’t there to support me. I think that’s the some of the best self-advocating that I’ve done, just refusing to surround myself with people who I don’t need.
Des: What does it feel like to have PTSD?
Zoe: Overwhelming. Having PTSD is a cluster of a few different symptom clusters, and sometimes it feels like I’m just at war with my brain. I never know when I’m going to dissociate or have a panic attack. Sometimes they’re so bad that I puke, and I never know if, when going out to dinner, I’ll have to just leave in the middle. For the last couple of years I’ve been agoraphobic. It’s gotten better the last few months, but one of the hardest parts, for me, having done some sexual assault advocacy, was trying to integrate the things that I’ve been telling other people for years. The first time around, with the suicide attempt, everything was all my fault. That was just kind of baseline, like everything was my fault. Unlearning that has been one of the biggest challenges and it did become disabling. I lost a lot of confidence in myself.
I run my own business selling vintage clothes now because I can do it from home, but I felt like I couldn’t do anything for a while. It’s really demoralizing. But its also taught me how to build the relationships that I want and how to advocate for myself, tell the people I need in my life how much I need them there, and what I need from them. I’ve just had to be very selective in who I surround myself with now, which was very much not who I was before.
I feel like I’ve learned a lot about myself with it, and a lot of that is thanks to mental health professionals. I’m in an amazing process group of mostly older women.
PTSD, it takes you out of yourself. You never quite get over being jumpy, and a big part of it is just that your physical body, your nervous system, just learns to snap into it. It can get triggered by anything. Any stress in my life can set me off, and it's made me suicidal. Never for too long of a time, but I’ve definitely been there the last couple of years. Specifically, with sexual assault, you have to learn to stop caring about how other people are going to react or handle it because people are a lot shittier than you hope they would be.
Des: Is that any different for suicide?
Zoe: I don’t think so. I think it’s very hard to see someone hurting, and I will always understand that. The world is really cruel to people with too many feelings, but I think creating community is where my recovery space is.
Des: Talk more about that.
Zoe: Having people who I really feel truly understand, and not even necessarily people with PTSD or [who have had thoughts of or attempted] suicide. It’s been so refreshing to see the mentally ill community start to try and come together in these ways I haven’t seen before, and I hope that it can become a community and a base...
I think there’s a lot of institutionalized disincentive to create that community. When I was in the hospital for the first time, they wouldn’t let me and my friend hug on the ward, and they eventually explained it as this thing where they didn’t want us to start identifying too much as patients and to get too attached to that because, then, we’re more likely to come back. Which, of course, I thought was absolute bullshit, because I was getting a hug because I was upset and on a psych ward.
I think a lot of our strength comes from one another and knowing that our bad days don’t have to be the end, that things will keep moving and changing. My big work in therapy has been not feeling stuck, remembering that I always have options. I feel like the people who best remind me of my options are people who have gone through this, who know what mental illness feels like in whichever way they experience it. And specifically, with attempt survivors, having a community of people who you can see, who you can watch be strong on the days that you’re not feeling so [strong] is, I feel, more empowering than most of the things that are supposed to make me feel better. Knowing that my friends who I’ve seen struggle, you know, if they can fight another day, then I can get behind that.
I think there is a long way to go with mental health activism and advocacy.
Des: What would you like to see change?
Zoe: In terms of mental health advocacy, the way we talk about stigma can be largely unproductive—and not in that it’s inaccurate or anything, but [we should be] taking it a step farther back, to the emotions behind stigma, the self-doubt and the shame. If we could just stop feeling ashamed, not just about being mentally ill, but about the feelings behind that, like the lived experience of being mentally ill, as opposed to just having a diagnosis...
I think we need to trust patients more. It’s that whole idea of the self-determination and everything. You know, if they’re suicidal, then they must be completely unreasonable. [We need to] understand that that place is just a place of feeling stuck, and [we need to] make option-seeking not just about, “Don’t be ashamed that you have a mental illness,” but like, "Talk to someone about it. Talk to anyone about it. It’s not something you have to hide."
That’s the thing, the people who don’t want to hear about it, you don’t need in your life. I struggled for a long time with whether it's supposed to be part of my identity or not, and whether or not I’m supposed to have a connection to that identity group. I do, and I find it way more empowering than any other shit I learned in the hospital. And I’m not alone. In general, with treatment for anything, patient empowerment [is key]. It’s one thing to go in with appendicitis and say, “Doctor knows best, here,” but nobody knows better than you about your feelings, and to pretend that they do is such a misstep and such a disservice. Try to enrich people's lives rather than telling them how not to be.
Des: Why did you decide to share your story for the project?
Zoe: I think no one can tell our stories better than ourselves, and that there’s a lot of power in that. For me, there’s a lot of power in speaking my truth, because that wasn’t what my life was about before. Just to be another voice in the chorus of, "It doesn’t have to be like this."
Des: What does a suicidal person look like?
Zoe: Anyone. I think there are signs. I think we’ve all read the list, but with any other public health campaign, there’s a lot of whitewashing and there’s hegemonic messiness. At least, in my experience, it's no one in particular. It’s just people who feel too much and don’t know what to do with it.
Des: Do you think it’s actually feeling too much, or is it feeling differently? It seems to me like feeling too much is a judgment.
Zoe: Differently. Intensity. Feeling with intensity. Yeah, not as in too many [feelings], but as in, it's really just another way of feeling, that people are sensitive, and I don’t think that’s a bad thing. I don’t think anyone should ever have to apologize for being too sensitive.
Des: What are the stereotypes of a suicidal person or a mentally ill person?
Zoe: That they’re dark, or antisocial, or feel too much. That they’re stupid or selfish. Selfish is a really big one. That they must not be thinking clearly about anything. They’re doing it for attention. We’ve got a lot of that.
Des: Talk to me more about that and selfishness.
Zoe: The message I got when I left the hospital, by the time that I was leaving, was that I was being selfish for not going home, I was being selfish for trying to kill myself. Everything I was feeling, someone else was interpreting as me being selfish. There was no space to have my own feelings without these judgments.
You asked about selfishness and…
Des: Seeking attention.
Zoe: That one is so messy because, if someone is feeling like that, they deserve the attention. It’s this double-edged sword—there’s probably literally some attention seeking going on. You know, if they get through this, attention needed, but then there's the dismissal of the desperation that’s displayed in an act like that.
A lot of people in my life thought that it was very much attention-seeking and that I wasn’t really that depressed, and it’s incredibly harmful. Imagine that. I lived with that for years until this last assault. I couldn’t talk about the earlier ones because I couldn’t make sense of them. I thought everything was my fault, that it had been selfish.
Everyone was asking, “How could you hurt us like that?”
No one stopped to ask, “How are we hurting you?”
It’s fucked up.
Des: Is suicide still an option for you?
Des: Tell me why.
Zoe: The most concrete reason was, when I moved in with him, I made a promise to his mother that I wasn’t gonna do it again while I lived there. I said okay, and I said I could do that, and I stopped eating, but I didn’t take any more pills. For a long time, the guilt I felt over what I’d done with the attempt, that wanting to make things right, kept me going.
Eventually, I started to see things a little differently and started to understand just how fucked up some of the stuff that happened was. I’ve moved to a really good place about it. They don’t get to take that away from me. Not my parents, not my abusers.
I have options. I always have options.
Des: If you were to directly address the people who are reading your story, what would you say to them?
Zoe: Never apologize for how you’re feeling. Speak your own truth. There should be no shame in talking about it, and the only way we’re gonna get there is by talking about it. The system is stacked in a lot of fucked up ways and negotiating finding not just treatment, but wellness, can be a challenge—more than a challenge—but it’s worth it.
If you're hurting, afraid, or need someone to talk to, please reach out to one of the resources below. Someone will reach back. Please stay. You are so deeply valued, so incomprehensibly loved—even when you can't feel it—and you are worth your life.
You can reach the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255, Trans Lifeline at 877-565-8860 (U.S.) or 877-330-6366 (Canada), or The Trevor Project at 866-488-7386. If you’d like to talk to a peer, warmline.org contains links to warmlines in every state. If you don't like the phone, check out Lifeline Crisis Chat or you can reach Crisis Text Line by texting START to 741741. If you're not in the U.S., click here for a link to crisis centers around the world.