Talking with Cathy Naughton

It was the most simple of requests: “I would be happy to have you interview me regarding my experience with being suicidal.”

Cathy Naughton approached me after I reached out to the tiny number of peer-run crisis services across the U.S. in an effort to learn more about what they do. A soon-to-come post will focus more on those details.

Cathy is in the rare position of working in both a peer-run center and in a more traditional crisis center in California, where she’s the only staffer who’s “out” about her personal experience. “I feel like in the peer-run place, I can be more like somebody that has faults,” she says. “Whereas in the more traditional crisis respite house where I also work, I feel like I have to be more of, you know, a staff person.”

Here, she talks about some of the weaknesses in the mental health system, from overcrowding to non-inspiring environments, as well as what she’s told her three children.

Who are you? Please introduce yourself.

My name’s Cathy, and I’m a single mother. I have a BA in psychology, and I work at a crisis respite house. I’ll be starting full time in a week. I’ve been on call there and at 2nd Story. 2nd Story is a respite house where the people who work there are also people who’ve experienced mental illness issues in their own lives. It’s run by peers.

I feel like I have to go back for background. I was born in Hawaii. I’m white, I was teased a lot, and I also have a deformed hand. I was teased a lot in junior high. I think that was the foundation for a lot of my depression and being unable to deal with people. So that went on a daily basis for a couple of years. That was before bullying became this big deal. Back then, it was a non-issue, completely ignored.

I started using drugs back then, and alcohol, and I got clean and sober at 16 for the first time. I had seven and a half years clean and sober, and over that period of time I experienced huge depressive episodes but had no idea that’s what it was. I just knew I was fucked up. Yeah, I was trying to get through college and would, like, sit in class trying not to cry the whole class. I just knew that wasn’t normal, something was wrong with me. I never sort of linked the thought of any sort of diagnosis with myself. So after I had seven years clean and sober, I finally said, “Screw it, I’m not getting any younger.” I was like, “If this is sobriety, being this, like, emotionally depressed, then screw it.” And so I made the decision I was going to try using drugs again. And I started using some meth, which was just wonderful for a while because it was exactly the feeling that I was missing. You know, the up feeling.

OK. So, at 25, I became pregnant for the first time. And that’s when my life just collapsed. I made the decision to move in with the man, the father, and he became really abusive. Mainly emotionally. I was sort of trapped there. I wasn’t working anymore, I was pregnant, it was a horrible situation. That’s when I truly wanted to kill myself. Constantly. That was all I thought about. But I never really did anything because I was pregnant. If I tried, it would cause, like, premature labor, you know, the baby might try to be born as I was dying. I envisioned scenarios that were just horrible. So it wasn’t until the baby was born that I started cutting on myself. Some people do that as a drug, for an endorphin release, but for me, it was kind of practice. Every time, I went a little bit farther, bled a little bit more. And the point that I truly tried to kill myself was when my son was about 1 and I was fully convinced that he would be better off without me around. That just seemed like the truth. In depression, it’s like, it feels like it has always been and will always be. Like a physical pain. I just felt I completely screwed everything up.

So my son’s father took him away for a day. I got a razor blade. We just had a shower, not a bathtub. I just sat on the floor next to the shower with my hand under the water and proceeded to try to kill myself with, like, a slow kind of a slow process. And I remember as I went along, your body starts to shunt blood away from the non-crucial parts of your body. I got really nauseous, started throwing up. I had to go to the bathroom. I was trying not to pass out. I’m not sure how long it was. I would keep re-cutting if it stopped bleeding. I could have been there an hour or two, I don’t know. Eventually, I passed out. And they came home and found me and called an ambulance. And so I went to the hospital and was in the ICU overnight. I needed four units of red blood cells. I don’t know how many pints that is. And then I had my first experience being 5150ed after that. In the behavioral health unit.

And and in a way, it was like a big relief, because finally everybody knew how screwed up I was. I’d been sort of trying to be normal, trying to survive and not telling anyone how bad things were. At that point, it became apparent, obviously. And for some reason, after that time of trying to really kill myself, I came to the realization that, you know, the worst thing you could possibly do to a child is try to kill yourself, because they could never really come to terms with you, with what happened. It’s like the ultimate, what’s the word, abandonment. And it’s like, you can be a fucked-up parent, but as we grow into adults and can come to terms with our parents as we become adults ourselves, we can sort of work through that stuff. But if you kill yourself, your child never has the opportunity to do that. It’s like you just left them. So that knowledge and belief was at that point what kept me from trying to kill myself again. And there were times, I have had times, where I felt totally trapped: “Oh my god, I can’t kill myself,” you know, like it was just a terrible thing I couldn’t kill myself because I have these children. So when I’m in depression, that’s where I can’t go.

I have seven years clean and sober again now, and this time around I’ve been on medication, anti-depressants. And I still have ups and downs, but it’s not as down as it was without the medications. You know, it’s more manageable. Life is more manageable, now that I’m seeing someone and am on medications. Not everyone believes in medications, but I do personally for myself. There’s a big trial-and-error factor, just trying to find what’s right for you.

How old are your kids?

My oldest is 15, and I have an 11-year-old and a 3-year-old.

What do they know? What do you tell them?

I don’t. You know, I’m pretty honest with my kids, but at the same time I don’t want them to be afraid that I’ll do something. They know Mom has depression, takes medication for it. I try to keep an eye on them because it can be genetic, although there usually needs to be trauma along with the genetics to kind of kick into gear.

How were you treated in the emergency room? Sometimes the treatment of attempt survivors isn’t the most comfortable.

They just kind of, like, rolled me into a quiet corner and ignored me, which was kind of weird. I took an EMT class long ago, and I know the first thing they do is assess the scene, figure out how much blood was lost. Since I was losing my blood down the shower, they just saw, like, a pint and thought it wasn’t that serious. So it wasn’t until they had done a blood test that they realized how much blood I had actually lost. I was in and out of consciousness, feeling nauseous. And then I didn’t remember anything until I woke a day later.

What made you decide to study psychology?

They always say the fucked-up people go into psychology, right? I just, I always wanted to help people. From when I was young, when I was clean and sober at 16, I thought I would be a drug and alcohol counselor. Now I sort of ended up in mental health, which, mental health and drug and alcohol are very intertwined anyway.

How did you decide to be open about your experience?

I feel like, as someone who has been there in the behavioral health unit, I feel like it’s good for people to know that I’m not viewing them as, like, less than or stigmatized, you know what I mean? I’m not looking down at them. I’m on par, we’re all equal. And I think it can be hopeful, you can give people hope that someone that used to be there has been able to move on, that life can get better. At the same time, I don’t want to, like, I mean, it’s about them. I don’t want to be doing the, “Oh, it reminds me of me,” to be one of those people bringing it back to themselves. It’s not about the staff, it’s about the client.

I work in two places, one peer-run and one more traditional. It’s kind of interesting going back and forth. The peer-run is just a lot more egalitarian. I feel more relaxed when working there. I feel like I don’t have to act like I’m a professional, which would be hard to do sometimes. A part of me feels like I’m acting a role in my job, trying to portray myself as someone who has my shit together. I feel like in the peer-run place, I can be more like somebody that has faults. Whereas in the more traditional crisis respite house where I also work, I feel like I have to be more of, you know, a staff person.

Isn’t it possible that other staff at that more traditional house have had their own experience?

Yeah. Thinking of all the staff, though, I’m the only one there right now with major depression. It’s only me who’s “out” about it.

Should there be more encouragement to be out?

I think so. It would make it less of a stigma. But at the same time, you don’t want to weigh people down with your own shit. There’s got to be a happy medium somewhere. A case-by-case basis type of thing.

What’s the difference in your approach to someone when working in these two places?

I don’t know that I really am different when it comes to a one-on-one talk with somebody. You know, fairly often I do let them know that I’ve been there.

Is there anything you’d like to see changed in addressing and treating people who are suicidal?

The main thing that comes to mind is the lack of basic funding. One of the buildings I work in desperately needs paint. This dingy place is falling part. It’s depressing, you know, and you’ve got people coming straight out of behavioral health and trying to go back to some kind of life, and it should be more uplifting. Instead it’s this environment that’s, like, ugh. It would be so nice if it could be more put together. I think your surroundings do matter. And then we’ve got people who are being sent home when they shouldn’t be sent home. There are not enough places for them. It’s just sad to see sometimes.

Sent home from a psych ward?

Yeah, we’ve had people let out, people who can’t stay at the crisis respite house or 2nd Story because they’re stable enough to not be in the hospital, and the hospital releases them, but we’re not equipped. We aren’t a locked facility, and we don’t have a high staff-to-client ratio. So they just end up on the street or at home, if they have a home. So they end up back in the hospital, or worse.

What’s the trend like in funding these days?

I think it’s just, every year a little bit more gets cut.

How to make the conversation more comfortable about suicide?

The only way is to do it, talk about it. The more you talk, the more OK it becomes to talk about it. People have this fear of mental illness. You know, like people killing people, like the danger factor. And you know, depression, it’s like I’m only a danger to myself. I don’t know, it seems like some people think that there’s more to it, that I’m going to take a bunch of people out.

But that would take so much effort when you’re depressed.

Yeah.

How about coping, avoiding especially bad days?

I can talk to people, I can write, but honestly, my mind, it does go back to, like, “I wish I could” … I get these urges to hurt myself. And I just don’t. But the desire, you know, it’s almost like the first place my mind goes. Like a reactive response to stress, sadness. And then I just have to move beyond that and do something different.

How do you protect yourself in your work?

Sometimes I talk to people. You know, outside of work. Anonymously. But somehow, I’m just able to keep a split between work and life. It’s like I have this, yeah, you can’t get too involved because it’s not effective at all, you’re just another patient, you know? To do a job, it has to be a job.

Is there any reason why peer work isn’t as widespread as any other mental health service?

I think people with mental health issues are stigmatized, so who wants to put them in charge, right? You know, we have to see that we are everywhere, we are everyone. And we can be at different places, you know. And just because I, that one time, was cutting into my wrists with a razor doesn’t mean that I can’t be safe, happy, healthy 10 years later and be helpful to others. I mean, change is possible.

You’re a completely different person.

Right. Also, as a recovering drug and alcohol addict, that’s also a big stigma. People like to keep bringing it up. Like my kids’ father. Even seven years clean, they’re still like, “Are you using?” It just keeps getting brought up.

Finally, who else are you?

At this point in my life, I’m just trying to be quote-unquote normal, to just be a good parent and have a job and go to work. I’m dating again after, I guess, four years. I’m just trying to be a normal person.

And outside of work?

Right now, I’m doing the “Drive the kids to baseball, drive them over here” … There’s not a lot of down time outside of work. So. I try to get enough sleep.

And your youngest is still at home a lot of the time. Your answer might be different in a couple of years, when everyone is at school.

Totally.

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