I recently had the chance to speak with Kristina Yates, who is a therapist and a MindFreedom member and runs a business boarding dogs for others. (I’m beginning to see a trend with people on this blog and pets.)
We spoke while she was riding back from the conference of the International Society of Ethical Psychology & Psychiatry. The society is at psychintegrity.org.
Kristina started by mentioning that she had been in the documentary “We Don’t Live Under Normal Conditions,” where a half-dozen people talked among themselves about depression, suicide and other issues. It was made years ago, she said, but its issues are even more relevant today. The site for the film is here.
What made you want to talk with me?
I appreciate the chance to tell my story. Suicide is an important issue. One of those hush-hush topics. Terrifying, painful, overwhelming.
You just came from a conference about psychology and psychiatry. Is it a place where the topic can be talked about more openly?
I think people don’t talk about it. I guess I could ask people. Unfortunately, (Thomas) Szasz’ new book wasn’t there. (The book is “Suicide Prohibition.”)
I have a friend in a wheelchair from a suicide attempt, and she’s pretty open about it. She’ll tell anybody. I think, however, it scares people.
How can that change?
I believe in talking. It we can create a safe place where this subject can be talked about confidentially.
Is my approach with this blog the right way to go?
If I talk about my story, they might start talking. The coming out creates an opportunity for others to come out.
Tell me about your experience.
I first attempted suicide when I was 14. I was very, very depressed. My mother took a lot of medication of all sorts. She really was a prescription drug addict. I took all the pills in the house. It really was not very smart, but I was 14. I didn’t ever go to the hospital. I threw up in the night. We didn’t really talk about it. And she had to have known.
I had these depressions every year that ended in a suicide attempt. Every year of high school. And the second time I took several bottles of over-the-counter sleeping medication. Again, I threw up in the night and in the next morning I was hallucinating. My mother thought I was sleepwalking. She took me to the hospital, but it was too late to pump my stomach. So I wasn’t being very successful. My depressions eventually left on their own and I never told anybody about my attempts.
The third time, I had a small pistol. I took it and pointed it at my chest and pulled the trigger. At that moment, someone came to the door. It turned out that the gun was set up so that the first shot was blank. It scared me so bad. And someone came to the door, so I dealt with them. I didn’t try it again.
Another year went by. I was real desperate now. I took a razor blade to my wrist. I cut across it. I cut everything, blood vessels, nerves, tendons. I didn’t die! I was like, “Oh great, what do we do?” I got my hand sewn up, four hours in surgery. They kept me 48 hours in the hospital, then let me go.
My depression mainly ended when I left home. I tried suicide two other times when I was about 20 years old, I had a relationship breakup that was very traumatic for me and became very depressed. I tried to rig something to gas myself at the stove. But just as I was about to lose consciousness I heard voices of people who loved me calling me back. The other time, I are rat poison but didn’t even get sick.
My body is pretty resilient. There was no damage.
How old are you now?
How did those feelings fade out?
The depression basically left once I left home. I’ve been depressed to varying degrees off and on, not really chronically.
In my mid-20s, I traveled for three years and traveled overland to India on $3,000, which I had saved from waitressing. Traveling alone as a woman in the mid-70s was very stressful. I spent a year and a half in India and studied meditation. When I was about to leave India to go to Japan to teach English, I was under a lot of stress. And very scared. Evidentally I had a psychotic break. Nothing like this had ever happened before, or since. I was hospitalized and given a lot of forced treatment, including electroshock. I’ve never taken psychotropic drugs unless they were forced on me.
I think my emotional problems were related to my home life and my relationship with my mom.
And you never talked with her about it?
My mother never talked much about me anyway. She had a lot of problems. I had no father. It was just the two of us. No, we never talked about it. I got some counseling from a minister who she sent me to. We were poor. People from my class background in Tennessee in the mid-60s didn’t use the mental health system or go to psychiatrists. Essentially there was little help for me or my mother.
Who did you become and who are you now?
I’m a part-time marriage and family therapist. I also have a business boarding small dogs at my home.
You mentioned that you’re an activist.
In the past, I’ve done street theater with MindFreedom. In grad school, I came out about my own trauma in the mental health system. David Oaks of MindFreedom International encouraged me to organize a protest at an American Psychiatric Association meeting in San Francisco.
I’ve also performed my personal story as a psychiatric survivor publicly on a number of stages.
How do your suicidal experiences define you, if at all?
To be honest, I feel suicide is not an option. My body does not want to die. It takes a lot of fucking work. It’s not easy. Also, I have the belief that I’ve just gotta get through this life one way or another. But when I was actively suicidal, I was desperate.
If anything, I’m proud to live through adversity. I’m pretty open. If anyone has a problem with that, I don’t care what they think.
You’re a therapist. Do you think counselors have an obligation to disclose their past suicidal experiences?
The norm is, you wouldn’t. If I had a client who is suicidal, I would not bring up my suicide attempts unless I thought it would be very helpful to the client.
I think it can be helpful for someone to know they’re not alone. I haven’t actually had to disclose my suicide attempts. I haven’t had clients who were actively suicidal. Most of my clients have physical disabilities, developmental disabilities, or are young children.
What do you think about putting the message out there that it’s difficult to kill yourself, that there are so many risks involved in attempting?
I agree that the message about how difficult it is to kill yourself might make someone think twice. I had no idea when I attempted suicide how hard it is.
I don’t know that’s going to be helpful, to be honest. I haven’t really thought about that. If someone is really suicidal, they might say, “I don’t care.” In my case, I just wanted relief. I just didn’t have time to feel rational _ “I don’t want to be a quadriplegic, etc.”
The better thing is to let people know they’re not alone.
If you had known what you know now when you were 14, would you still have tried?
I think it would have made me more desperate: “Oh, shit, now what?” I really just wanted pain relief. The only thing that could have helped would be having a connection with another human being.
You didn’t seek out anybody?
By the time I saw the pastor, it was after my last attempt. Then I left home and went to college. I was pretty isolated emotionally. There wasn’t anyone to take my troubles to. I was trying to make straight As, to be a good girl.
You were nervous about approaching teachers, friends?
I was just so numb, completely numb. There wasn’t much of an opening. Depression is such a thick wall, you know. Plus, there’s the horrible stigma of “I feel so bad, I want to kill myself.”
You mentioned that when you were in the documentary, you all watched some movie scenes of suicide. What do you think of the portrayal of suicide in the media?
I don’t watch mainstream media, but I remember the film _ “Elvira Madigan”? Maybe it was over a failed love or something. It was terribly romantic. They were running through these fields, slow motion, then a bang. Another one, “They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?” They used to have these dances where if you stayed dancing the longest you could win money. Again, it was romanticized. I think that’s bad, I really do.
I recently saw a film, “House of Sand and Fog.” There’s a suicide in that. No, he committed suicide. And what happened in “Harold and Maude”? My friend Nancy is reminding me of that. Anyway, I don’t think it’s good to romanticize suicide because it’s not romantic in reality.
How should the topic be dealt with?
It should be more accurate. In “House of Sand and Fog,” it was very gory. Very difficult to watch. He was very determined. It was coming out of deep, deep pain. It wouldn’t make me think, “I want to do that.” But “Elvira Madigan” kind of did.
You know, I haven’t given suicide a lot of thought. Didn’t Szasz say everyone has the right to kill themselves? I think that might be true. I don’t agree with involuntary hospitalization. So maybe it’s OK. I heard a radio documentary about a woman who orchestrated her suicide very consciously, deliberately, with all her friends there. She just took control. Then there’s the Hemlock Society. I mean, if you’re going to do it, they may know how to do it. I think people should have the right. But I think that most people who are feeling suicidal really want relief from the isolation they feel. When I was feeling suicidal, I didn’t have the ability to think ahead.
How do you reconcile these ideas?
I don’t know.
If I was feeling suicidal and you said to me, “You could end up brain-damaged, quadriplegic, I’d say, “I don’t care. Do you have a better plan? I’ll try harder.”
(Kristina then asked me about my own experience, and I told her.)
I’m all for talking about the hard stuff. It’s important, and it helps break isolation and build connection. It helps alleviate feelings of depression that can be so great that we feel suicidal.