Talking with Jessica Blau

“Almost on a daily basis, when I take a shower, or I’ll be looking in the mirror, brushing my teeth, putting face lotion on, and sometimes I’ll be staring in the mirror and be like, ‘Who are you? And what are you now?'”

Jessica Blau is making her way back from a fairly recent suicide attempt, and this is just the top layer of questions she’s been asking. After years of thinking about suicide, to the point where she obsessed over the bridges in the San Francisco area _ and dismissed the Golden Gate Bridge as too cliche _ she’s exploring electroconvulsive therapy for the first time. And openly writing about it online.

Here, she talks about the sharp need for mental health resources even in one of the richest counties in the U.S., her search for the feeling of gratitude in surviving an attempt _ and how eating Popsicles with a stranger outside the grocery store reminds her of the power of social media.

Please introduce yourself.

I’m a pretty typical 39-year old, a pretty typical woman. I include these details for specific/statistical purposes: I’m caucasian, I grew up in a pretty solid family, my parents are still married and just celebrated their 46th anniversary. I did go to college, however, I left with one class to go and never went back to take it, and I’ve worked since I’ve been 15. The majority of my career has been in the nonprofit field, in fundraising. I mention these things because I think people have misconceptions about people who live with mental illnesses or have depression. They sort of picture them a certain way, make assumptions that maybe they didn’t go to college or they aren’t smart or they come from a bad background, but I don’t have that at all. So, yeah, I have been fundraising many years, but I had to stop working because of depression. I got to the point where I was making a lot of errors in my work and missing a lot of days of work.

I can go all the way back to 4 or 5 years old and recall moments where I would be sitting on my bed and feeling really low and really down, but I didn’t ever say anything to anybody. I didn’t even know what language to use around it or that it was abnormal. It sort of followed me through my youth. Often I felt at a young age, 7 or 8, really isolated, even in a family of five. So I kind of kept rolling with it, entered grade school and immediately started having problems in school. I often got in trouble for talking a lot. I had incredible anxiety about getting good grades, even at that young of an age. I come from a very creative family where being “successful” was important. Good grades, being a good student, doing well in whatever you do was very important. And I was just always nervous of failing. And I was always nervous about not being good enough. But I never understood it, and I didn’t talk about it, so I internalized much of what I was feeling. I thought maybe it was normal and that’s how other people felt, too.

And so I made my way through junior high and high school, and the same kinds of feelings were still there. In fact, things got a lot worse in junior high. Not only was I worried about being smart enough and successful enough, but I had become chubby and had braces and was sort of like an ugly duckling. I started smoking marijuana very early in high school because it sort of helped with my anxiety issues. And I also started getting very interested in boys at the time. I had started to develop, got my braces off and dyed my hair blonde and started to get noticed by boys at my school. I started pouring all of my anxiety and feelings of depression into boys, and it made me feel a lot better and kind of carried me through high school and even college.

And after high school I had my first very serious boyfriend, and that’s the first time somebody said to me, “You might want to see a therapist about your depression, because you just don’t seem happy.” I had had two really significant panic attacks while traveling overseas with my boyfriend, and I had no idea what was happening. I couldn’t hear, see, and suddenly I was being taken to the hospital. We were in South Africa, and the doctors were saying, “What’s wrong with this girl?” And once I was back in the States, people said “panic” or “anxiety attack.” I actually didn’t see a doctor or talk about it emotionally until I was 22. So when I look back on it, I think, “Gosh, I think my life would have been a lot different if I had been to a doctor at 15 or maybe 14, a lot earlier,” to get the language, to get acquainted, to be able to say, “I’m feeling depressed” instead of “I just don’t feel right” or “I just have a headache,” because it didn’t make sense to anybody.

When I was 22, I finally went to a therapist, and by that time I was a daily pot smoker, what I call a wake-and-baker, and my boyfriend was also smoking a lot. Then we had relationship problems. I became pregnant, and we went through the whole process of deciding whether to keep the baby. We finally decided to terminate, which threw everything into overdrive for me in terms of emotional stability.

So it’s been pretty much since that time that I’ve felt the weight of my depression. I’m 39 now; I was 22 then. I was working, just getting out of school, with my first job, the career I wanted to be in, and everything started to sort of crumble around me. I kind of describe my younger years like I was living in the French 1920s, like having art parties with my friends, lots of pot and wine, long nights of dancing in dark, smoky clubs. After the relationship with my boyfriend, I had sort of a revolving door of men in my life. I spent a lot of money at that time. I was making good money, doing everything I possibly could to make myself feel better, but nothing did. I was having a lot of sex, smoking a lot of pot, drinking a lot of wine. I always had a very strong support system, great girlfriends, such a huge blessing in my life. But yeah, that period was very free for me. If I could be in a place like that all the time, I probably would, but that doesn’t always work in the mainstream world.

So I spent a good portion of my 20s doing that. Drinking and smoking and crashing on Sunday. But it was just really about trying to cover up how screwed up and sad I felt all the time. …  I’m sober now, for seven and a half years, the longest thing I have ever committed to, and looking back, I was doing it all to mask how awful I was feeling. I still very much live my life from a creative perspective. I love to write, and at some point I would love to publish a book. I paint, I love to express myself that way, be open with my life, and I love to be around people who are the same. I feel fortunate because I feel surrounded by people who are artists and live life on a more spiritual, open level, so they have great compassion, great capacity for listening, understanding. I feel very much supported by my friends and for that, I feel very, very grateful.

So, is that kind of OK, or are you looking for anything else?

How did you come to be talking to me?

Right. So back in 2007, I had a beautiful apartment in Oakland, and I had hooked up with this man who I met off of Craigslist who, after we met, three days later, told me he didn’t even have a house, he was a couch surfer. So I was like, “Move in!” Which was a huge mistake, but we had pretty awesome chemistry. So he moved in, lived with me for six months. I really fell for him. He had some really wonderful qualities, also some not so wonderful. We had this very intense relationship. I had a relationship just before him for two years that ended terribly, with a man who sort of was just going out with me, but I feel he never even really liked me; I think he was as lonely as I was. In hindsight, it was a very difficult relationship. It was like a pattern with me. Guys were not physically abusive but emotionally abusive. I didn’t know how to handle it. So I just kept taking it, thought this was normal, how all my relationships were going to be because of my depression and mental health situation.

So 2007 comes along, in this relationship, and we get to New Year’s, and I come home one day, and he has printed out a bunch of different ads from other women, and they were just sitting on my desk, women he was seeing on the side. I sort of flipped out and became very emotional. And he didn’t come home that night. The next day, when I went to work, I drove about 100 feet from my driveway and froze in my car. I couldn’t even do anything. I could barely get the phone out my pocket. I called my therapist, who had moved to Oregon, and told her what was happening. I couldn’t move, was stuck in the car, didn’t know what to do. She phoned my parents and they came, they lived about an hour away. They drove to where I was and got me back into my apartment, picked me up, and brought me to their house. That night, and I will never forget this, I heard my dad sob in their bedroom. I think they thought I was asleep. But earlier I had said I wanted to die, and later that night, my father cried, one of the only times I have heard or seen him cry in my whole life.

I basically had a psychological breakdown. And that was the first time ever, so I got an appointment with a psychiatrist, the first time I’d ever seen one. I had started antidepressants a while back, but with all the pot-smoking you couldn’t tell what was working and what wasn’t. So when I saw the psychiatrist, he said, “You need to go to the hospital right now,” because I was actively suicidal. So I went to the hospital straight from his office, like three blocks away. I didn’t have anything with me, books, clothes. My parents left me in the psych ward, and I remember the big door slamming shut, and I was standing there thinking, “Oh my god, what has happened to my life?” I completely crumbled. I felt everything I had known about who I was, who I had made myself to be, was totally shattered. It sounds really dramatic, but that’s what it was like. You’re just standing there. I couldn’t even believe it. This is what has happened. It’s my life. And so the first time, I was in the hospital for 21 days, and they loaded me up on a ton of medication. They put me on lithium the first night, Seroquel, Ativan, like a complete zombie. I couldn’t find my language, had trouble making sentences. And it worked, the lithium helped in about six hours, which was a little bit of relief. But yeah, I was so overly medicated.

I went through all the group stuff that you go through, individual therapy, trying to get my medication stable. After 21 days they let me go, and within about three weeks I was back in the hospital again because I just couldn’t function. When I was in the hospital the first time, my brother had moved me out of my apartment, so I was living with my parents. And that was really hard, because the people around you expect that when you come out of the hospital you’re gonna be fine, fixed. I certainly wasn’t fixed. If anything, I was worse than before. It’s probably less about expectation and more about hope.

In 2007, I went to the hospital four times in five months. And all of the times, I self-admitted
myself to the ER. That year, I remember it was Thanksgiving. And we always have
Thanksgiving at my brother’s house with my family and his wife’s family. And that morning I woke up and knew I wanted to end my life that day. My brother is a gun owner, and while I do not know where he keeps his, I was getting ready that morning with the idea that I would shoot myself that day. During dinner, we were all sitting around the table, laughing, eating … and I excused myself and went upstairs to use the bathroom. I was in the bathroom thinking about where his gun might be, ready to go find it. I must have taken too long, because my mom came looking for me. I think in some way she knew what was happening. I went in to the hospital the next day.

Each time I was feeling suicidal, and finally after the fourth time the doctors were like, “You have to get sober or else you’re going to be dead in the next year.” There was no doubt
I would have made an attempt sooner if I had stayed using drugs and drinking as much as I was. So just by good fortune, I don’t even think my parents understood what was going on, they sent me to a rehab clinic in Southern California. My family had not been a huge part of my recovery at that time. I was really confused. They felt it was their fault, I think they were nervous about being blamed for being bad parents. I went there two months and amazingly got completely sober, and I’ve been sober ever since. It’s the best thing I ever could have done for myself. I certainly miss it occasionally, but I feel like when you’re on medication, which I still am … I’ve probably tried over the course of the last 10 years 17 different cocktails of medication, so it’s been a long haul, a long trial.

Fortunately, most of the time I’ve been able to be my own best advocate. I had the ability to understand what the doctors were saying, what I was taking. I feel really lucky on that side of things. So many people who go through the same thing don’t have the good fortune to be able to communicate well with their doctor or understand what’s going on because they’re just so sick. I feel lucky to be able to make decisions for myself on most of my treatment options, and I feel lucky that I was able to do my own research on treatment options.

After I got back from rehab, I went into the hospital two more times in 2007, and then the last time in 2007 was Thanksgiving weekend, and I sort of left the hospital with the idea that “OK, you have to man up, get back to work and just do what you’re supposed to be doing in your life. Work, be a friend, have a clean house.” That didn’t work. So 2008 comes around, 2009 comes around, and it’s been five years basically in and out of the hospital, in and out of relationships, dating a lot. I was just going on night after night dating random guys, just all sort of like consuming me, shopping a lot, really making bad decisions even though I wasn’t smoking or drinking anymore. It just transferred over.

So I became obsessed with bridge jumpers in 2009, and it was sort of before the big movie came out with people jumping off the Golden Gate Bridge, and Kevin Hines‘ story came out. I was thinking I wouldn’t jump off the Golden Gate Bridge because it was such a cliche. I would jump off the Oakland Bridge, just to be different. I became what would be considered OCD about learning every single detail about both those bridges: the highest point, the tides, others who jumped. I would drive across the bridges all the time to see where I would do it from. I wasn’t telling anyone about it. I was in my own head thinking about this. If I wasn’t driving, I was at the house thinking about my plan. When I would do it, which side I would do it on. Traditionally, people jump on one side and not the other. And it got to the point where 24 hours a day, I was thinking about it. I would drive across the bridge often because my family lives on that side of the bay. I would drive across on almost a weekly basis. A couple of times, I was stuck on the bridge in traffic, and I felt like it was calling me, “This is your opportunity.” I started getting scared and told my psychiatrist about it, and he was like, “Go back to the hospital!” I shouldn’t be laughing about it, but what else can you do? Everybody was very concerned about it. My doctors were super concerned about that. I spent 2009 to 2013 in full sort of suicidal ideation mode. It was all I thought about, all the time.

Meanwhile, all my siblings were having children, beautiful nieces and nephews being born. I had always wanted to have children but had not had the opportunity. I had been laid off a couple times, so my depression was getting worse at the same time that I was getting more and more suicidal. And I just started thinking that, kind of on a more philosophical level, why should anyone have to live like this? I didn’t grow up in a religious family, so I had no foundation of faith or god or what happens when someone dies. But I had always believed in assisted suicide, which has also become sort of a conflict for me. Because I started thinking, if I’m living like this and it’s such trouble just to get out of bed and have positive relationships in my life, it’s just everything’s getting too hard, and going to work was getting hard, even taking a shower. I started going days without taking a shower because I was just so exhausted all the time. People started noticing: “Oh, you haven’t washed your hair in a while!” I have very curly hair, and at one point it got really knotted in the back, so I had to chop my hair off. I would say, “I haven’t had the energy to take a shower.” I stopped seeing my friends, stopped dating completely _ which was a marker for me because that’s my fun thing, you know?

In the meantime, I have a very close girlfriend whose mother had lived her life with severe
depression and schizophrenia. I had been given a diagnosis of medication-resistant depression, and then bipolar I and II. And then back to depression at some point. But I started spending a lot of time with my friend’s mom, Joan, because we had a lot in common. I helped them make decisions about her medication. So we had become very good friends. And when I was laid off from my last fundraising position, I sort of became her care provider the weeks she would come up and visit. She ended up dying by suicide on Sept. 11, 2012. And it was horrific. She overdosed and didn’t leave any sort of note or anything. It was a very long and painful process for her body to let go. No one sort of had any idea because she didn’t give any indication she was thinking about it. We’d talked about it many times, but we both said we didn’t want family members to go through a grieving period. She completed the act, and I felt and still feel like she … it’s almost as if she ended her life for the both of us. So it’s been a huge source of guilt for me. I still have a lot of questions about it. Could I have prevented it? I knew our conversations, should I have seen the signs?

So I went into what I would consider my deepest depression. Or how I phrase it, my depression threshold was the lowest it’s ever been. Because I feel like you go through depression and mental illness, you have your better days and worse days, and that threshold at the lowest point moves all the time, so you’re higher functioning or lower functioning, depending on what’s going on. I sunk into a horrible depression after Joan died, and I just felt myself sort of, I was almost like out of my body. Come January, February, I didn’t think I was going to see my 39th birthday which is on Feb. 15. I was sure I was gonna die. My birthday passed. Then I was going through days like a zombie, I didn’t know what to do with myself. I felt like my whole life had been sort of blown up in a way. So come March, I was just, on March 10, I was in bed listening to music. You know when your apartment is in its best state and is so comfortable, how you love it? That’s how mine was. My cat was here, the Christmas lights were on, music was on, I had hot chocolate, I
was drawing. A perfect relaxing evening, but in a sad way, I knew it was sort of like my last
night. At some point, around 12ish or 1ish, I just kind of felt like I had sort of come to the end of my life and it was time to go, and that suffering was becoming too great to live with, and it needed to end. And I’ve done what I needed to do in my life. And I just started taking pills, and I ended up taking over 80 pills. Anything in my medicine cabinet, almost like drinking them, pouring them down my throat. I was like super calm, like it was something that had to be done.

They said I probably would have died, but at some point around 4 in the morning I texted one of my best and beloved girlfriends who lives in North Carolina. I texted her my email passwords and all my sort of passwords for things. And she called 911. She just knew what was going on. The paramedics got here like 10 minutes after, and I remember opening the door for them, but I don’t remember anything else. I woke up three days later in the hospital, and they said I talked about Joan all the time. I remember waking up and a nurse was standing over me and she said, “There she is,” and I just shut my eyes again.

Because I knew at that point that I wanted to start electroconvulsive therapy _ I had researched it prior to my overdose _ I was sent to a psychiatric hospital that provides that treatment. I decided to start ECT because I figured that was sort of my last option for treatment. I just had my 25th treatment, and I’ve definitely seen success through the treatments, and that depression threshold definitely moved up, which is a miracle. I never
thought I could feel like halfway normal again.

So that’s kind of where I am. And I still have suicidal ideations almost every day, but it’s sort of more like a stress response, almost like it’s conditioned. Because it’s been happening for so long that I feel like once I started having suicidal ideations, it sort of like landed in my head. So when I have a stressor, that’s the first thing I go to. So I’m trying to learn how to manage that, sort of trying to get back into my life.

So at the urging of my friend who called 911 for me, I started a blog in 2011 to chronicle my entire experience and all of my ECT treatments. So I’ve written about everything and have been getting really interesting responses from people all around the world. It’s been really interesting. But I’ve been having a hard time with it. It’s hard to integrate what’s happened into the rest of my life.

How so?

I’ll, like, go to the store, and I feel like now, regardless of how far someone is from me, I can almost pinpoint if they are having a challenging time, and now I hear people talking about suicide all the time. It’s kind of like that phenomenon where like, “Oh, see that red car,” and then you see it all over the place. I just keep running into people who’ve had that experience, and the language is all around me now. I’m trying to live my life like normal. I will be walking through the store and am hyper-aware that I’ve been through this experience, and I wonder if people know when they look at me. Can they tell? I have this knowledge that others don’t have. It doesn’t make me better or worse, but it’s just how it is now.

I have a porta-catheter under my clavicle, where my IVs go for my ECT. It’s a pretty significant scar where that is, it sticks out like a ball from my chest. For a long time, I put Band-Aids over it because I thought people wouldn’t want to see. But then I started thinking it’s part of my body, it’s part of my story. So I’d go out and sometimes wear tops that show the scar, and sometimes people would ask me, “Wow what happened?” And I’d say, “Actually, I have a port for medicine,” and they say, “You have cancer?” and I say, “No, I’m getting ECT,” and they’re like, “What? I didn’t know they had that anymore!” or “What is that?” And that’s been really interesting, to see people’s responses. I tell people it’s not a first-line option, it’s more like the last line of treatment options. And that I lived a really long time trying to manage my symptoms on my own, either through self-medicating or actual medicating.

So yeah, I just feel like life is pretty strange now, which is one of the reasons why I sit for hours at night researching online all types of things _ suicide attempt support groups, people who’ve written books about suicide or attempts, or foundations raising money for mental health. Everything I can possibly find. Which is how I came across your website.

What else are you still looking for?

Excellent question. Because I feel like I will know it when I find it, but I haven’t found it yet. But I don’t exactly know what it is. But yeah, I feel like, I’ve been thinking about starting a group myself because I feel like I could be around people who’ve had the experience.

You know, I have the memory of 10 paramedics coming into my apartment and making me
drink two whole bottles of charcoal, I remember the taste of the charcoal, I remember them asking me what I took and me pointing them to my cupboard because I couldn’t remember, but I don’t remember anything after that. After I got out of the hospital, I actually went to the fire station three blocks from my house to thank the firemen for helping me. I was really emotional. They were just so nice.

One thing I would like to be around other people who’ve had this experience is because I have not experienced what I read others have experienced  _ this overwhelming sense of gratitude for being alive, and I wonder if it’s gonna happen. And if it doesn’t happen, I wonder what that means. I think about that a lot, and I wonder why it hasn’t happened for me yet. And I’m not necessarily concerned about it, but it makes me think. So there are just some things I’d love to be able to sit in a room, have coffee with people, a comfortable atmosphere, and have a really open dialogue about what it all means. I try to stay away from things like, even before this happened, like boxing myself into things that define my life, and this is one of those things I don’t want to have define my life or inform how I look at my life, but it’s almost impossible not to have that happen, I feel.

Why?

I don’t know. It could be because I think about it too much, but almost on a daily basis, when I take a shower, or I’ll be looking in the mirror, brushing my teeth, putting face lotion on, and sometimes I’ll be staring in the mirror and be like, “Who are you? And what are you now?” You know? Like I feel like I have some memory almost on a molecular/cellular level that changed. Because of this experience. And people say, a couple of people said, “Wow, you seem like you’re getting back to your old self.” It’s been bothering me to hear that. I understand they’re being supportive. It occurred to me the other night, why do I want to become my old self when I tried to destroy my old self? And just saying that makes me incredibly sad. It makes me so sad for me, but also, I have these beautiful nieces and nephews and they’re so smart, so young, and they’re the loves of my life. If they were my children, I would be so happy. If this ever happened to them, or if they ever got to a point where they experienced depression or suicidal feelings, there’s nothing I wouldn’t do. I would go to the ends of the earth to help them. And I just hope they never have to go through any of this. Because it’s really exhausting, and it just makes you question, I feel like it made me question every bit of who I am. I feel like normally I’m pretty self-possessed. But I feel like I’m like a baby now and sort of having to recreate myself.

What supports do you have? Who do you have, what do you have?

My family system was pretty broken before this happened. I’ve been estranged from my sister for two and a half to three years. I don’t know why she stopped talking to me. My dad told me recently during an argument that my family doesn’t talk to me because I am so emotional and intense. That was really sad to hear. And that was sad for a really long time, but at some point I just was like, my stuff was overriding that. And I’ve always been very close with my brother, but we always used to party together, so when I got sober, our relationship changed. It’s sort of like any family dynamic, when one person changes, everyone else has to make changes or … My mom and I have always been very, very close, and she is definitely a big support of mine, but it’s put a huge stress on our relationship and, I think, on her and my dad’s relationship.

But my suicide attempt has completely shattered my parents, and they’re not the therapy type of people. They don’t understand why I have a blog. They think it’s ridiculous why I talk about my private life so publicly. For them, it’s embarrassing. So my parents are supporting me financially because I’m not working and am actually applying for permanent disability, which has been a huge, very tiresome process. And my dad is sort of managing that process. I just want someone to say, “I love you, and I hear you, and I feel for you, and you don’t have to be scared, and you can be exactly who you are in this moment, and we love you no matter what” and understanding that they have their own lives and need their privacy and private time. What kind of saves me in my life are my friendships, my girlfriends, my art, and knowing that I am a kind person and a good person, and I will do things to help people if they need help, and that makes me feel good. But I don’t need, you know, a clean car to feel good about myself. But that is something that is important to my parents.

When I get ECT, they have pretty set guidelines. You get your treatments; you have someone drive you, because they put you under anesthesia and meds so you can’t drive for 24 to 48 hours. They actually don’t know quite how it works, but they do know it causes your neurons to regrow, kind of reconnect with one another. So they want you after your treatment to be around people you love and love you and to do happy things and fun things and be engaged with people in the days after the treatment, because you’re reprogramming your thought patterns so they’re taking over with new positive messaging. Well, my parents have been in Tahoe most of the summer. And I don’t talk to my sister, and my brother never comes over to see me. So I haven’t had that sort of family reconnecting time that other people have. And I’ve had a lot of resentment around it, and it’s caused a lot of problems with my parents. They spend every summer in Tahoe, but I
don’t understand why, when I’m going through this treatment, why they have to be there this summer. So that’s been really difficult, but I just have had to sort of deal with it … and I just want to say that I’m making it sound like it’s been so easy, but it’s been a huge thing for me, this separation with my parents. Super upsetting to the point where I can’t stop talking about it with people. And prior to my last three treatments they’ve gotten into big arguments with me, which is terrible, because they want you to come in all calm and relaxed. I think that’s my parents’ way of coping. They won’t get outside support, meet with a therapist, or go to NAMI meetings. They’re not interested at all.

So I’ve been feeling they have been wanting me to make them feel better about this whole
situation, but I just can’t. I don’t have the energy to make myself feel better and make them feel better. So that’s been really difficult, to not have my family sort of be in my corner. And in fact, we’ve had these arguments. A couple of weeks ago, my dad called me crazy, saying all these nasty things, that I’m crazy, so emotionally all over the map. He told me no one in the family wants to be around me. And quite frankly, it makes me not to want to talk to him.  My brother and I got in an argument a few weeks ago and he told me to “change my life,” and I just can’t even believe he is saying that to me when I am going through this incredibly physically draining, and to an extent, dangerous treatment. So it’s pretty sad.

But on the flip side, I have really incredible friends. I’ve had them for 20 years, really incredible women who’ve been through a lot themselves. It’s been very hard on them, I think, when I overdosed. It was very hard for some of them to talk to me afterwards. It took them a while to sort of talk to me, and I think it’s just shocking for people. And everybody handles it differently. But yeah, my friends have been pretty incredible, really open to talking about things that are normally painful to talk about. They’ve been really encouraging about my blog. They’ve been really encouraging me to keep that up. Because they see how it’s sort of helped me heal. It’s also giving other people the possibility to sort of learn about ECT, and I get messages from people all around the world who are thinking of having the procedure done. So it’s been great. And I feel fortunate to have them in my life. Even at my worst moments, my girlfriends can make me laugh.

I’d like to add that I do love my family. We are all very different in our needs, and I think we
just don’t meet each other where we need to be met. Maybe that will change one day. Maybe not.

What more would you like to do?

You know, since 2007, my first hospital visit … It’s ironic, since I don’t come from a religious background. I have this calling to become a nondenominational chaplain so I can go back into the psych ward and work with people there. I feel like it’s the perfect fit for me, sort of something I have to do in my life. I feel like almost it’s not an option for me, like something I have to pursue. It will take some schooling, which is expensive, but it’s definitely something I would like to do.

And I really want to stay on course in becoming a mental health advocate, really educating
people on … You know, I used to have a therapist who used this term, “Let’s break it down into the ridiculous.” Like you’re fighting with your parents or there’s a problem at work, and you break the situation down so it’s, like, smaller and smaller, to the point at the end where you’re like, “Wait a minute, it’s not a big deal after all!” I sort of remind myself of that occasionally, but I think about it in terms of becoming a mental health advocate, and people often go, “Oh, it’s a huge kind of job, a big responsibility,” and when I look at it using her model, I think it’s just all about being able to care for and care about people who can’t necessarily care about themselves at that moment in time. And when you’re in the hospital, you see it all the time, people not being able to make decisions for themselves, smart, educated people. I’ve been in the psych ward with artists and writers and teachers and mothers and a rabbi even, and I want people to know that mental illness crosses economic, social, intellectual, racial lines. There’s just no set model for who is going to experience this type of stuff. And that, I feel, is really important for me to get that message out there. Just what you are doing with your site. You’re breaking the stigma around mental illness.

So yeah, I want to keep pursuing that. I would love to, I’ve done public speaking as part of
fundraising, but I’ve never done it in terms of my mental health situation. But I’m very interested in that, especially in terms of the ECT process. A lot of people are interested in it, but a lot of websites are filled with negative information about it, back from when “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” came out and portrayed it as a violent act. But you know, it deserves some positive feedback. People need education about it, because it’s a great treatment option for people who are older, especially who don’t respond very well to treatment, or women who are pregnant because it doesn’t affect the fetus. Because medication will hurt the fetus. It’s a good option for a lot of people, but a lot of people are so scared that they don’t even think about it.

So yeah, I just want to sort of keep educating myself about the mental health world and be a part of the conversation and certainly put my story out there. I definitely think that if a person has it in their head that they’re going to end their life that not a lot is going to change their mind. I don’t share that opinion with a lot of people because I feel it’s sort of negative, it will make someone concerned, it’s not very hopeful. So I kind of keep it to myself. But just the conversations I’ve had with people in the hospital, once you’re at the point where you’re in the hospital, I’d sort of like to change somebody’s mind about that stuff. But I hope that my story can help somebody, and I don’t know how, but I’m hoping that it can.

Is there anything else you’d like to say about the reactions to your story, or maybe changes to system you’d like to see?

Something I’ve definitely been thinking about, I haven’t read the entire Obamacare document, but it will be interesting to see what happens to mental health with that. Everybody in the hospital, in the ECT clinic, all the nurses talk about it like it will be so life-changing for so many people, being able to access mental health services. It’s interesting, the foundation No Stigmas, it put an article that came across my Facebook page the other day. The article said “studies show a lack of mental health services in poor communities in California.” I said, “Huh, that’s interesting.” I think that’s true, however, I live in Marin County, one of the most affluent counties in the nation, but there’s a huge lack of services here. I threw out a comment mentioning that I have Kaiser as my insurance, and I’m in a group, like a post-hospitalization group through Kaiser, and there are 35 people in the group. Thirty-five. And the group is an hour and a half. The class is so packed with people that even if you raise your hand with a question, the moderator says, “We can only spend five minutes on this.” So they’ve packed people into this class, so it’s almost counterproductive. You go, you leave, and I feel completely frustrated because you’re not able to ask a question or didn’t completely understand something.

I don’t have the answer to how those things can be fixed. But I know they do need to be fixed. People need individual help. Even if you’re in a group, people need to be individually
recognized, acknowledged, that you’ve been through a difficult time. There are people in there who are having trouble with teenagers, or a person who’s bipolar who is having a bad case of compulsive shopping, people from all areas of the mental health spectrum. But it’s just so impacted. Even if a program is available, it’s just so impacted that it’s difficult to get individual care.

The conversation still needs to be talked about, and I really think social media has had a huge and important role in bringing the conversation to the forefront of people’s minds. There’s so many websites out there now. Suicide prevention sites and blogs, awareness groups.

Any favorites?

There are parents of children who have ended their lives who have started foundations, who are making strides by telling their children’s stories or their families’ stories, getting the message out on a national level just through Facebook or Tumblr, even, which is what my blog is on. These incredible blogs with these messages, “Look at your fellow neighbor, we are all going through something challenging, and life is really hard, but if we can help one another and support one another, we can make it through.” Which can be seen as a very Pollyanna and very kumbaya kind of feeling, but I think there’s real truth to it.

This is the kind of experience I have had. All my life has been in situations where I’d be a total stranger and someone shares their whole life story with me. It’s happened my whole life. Maybe I have one of those faces that say, “I’ll understand.” But three or four weeks ago, I was in Safeway, and part of my relaxation time is my grocery shopping time, it’s so silly but it’s relaxing to me. I was in the ice cream aisle and looking at strawberry fruit bars. I was reading the back, and this lady comes next to me. I ask, “Have you ever had these?” She said, “No are they good?” I said, “I don’t know, I’ve never had them.” She said, “They look really good, sounds good right now.” I said, “Yeah, are you having an OK night?” She looked upset. She said, “Well, I’m going through a divorce.” And out came this flood of emotion. I feel like she just needed someone to talk to in that moment. And she’s telling me about how she was leaving her husband, just devastated, married for, I think, 23 years, some really long time. So we went through shopping, finished and then sat outside Safeway and ate a Popsicle together. And it was like such a beautiful moment, one of those moments you never forget. Here’s this woman, I’m totally in my sweats all scroungy-looking, and she’s just opening up, and we’re two total strangers having Popsicles in front of Safeway. Then we hugged and left.

Those kinds of moments are so priceless, but they’re what people are yearning for. And I think social media has played a role in this, why they’re so popular. People just want to connect with other people and be listened to and be heard and be acknowledged as being important and loved. And I think on our most basic human level, we just want to connect with other people who are really hearing what we’re saying. I know I want that.

I had a couple other experiences like that this year. My sweet cat Moxie, I had to put her down about a month and a half ago because she had cancer. Terrible, traumatic. I had to rush her to the vet. I was by myself. A basket case. A woman who was there with her friend who was putting her dog down, she came over and sat with me and held my hand and put her arm around my shoulders for about an hour and 15 minutes, for the whole process. Then I went in, they put Moxie to sleep, just horrible and awful, and when I came out, she hugged me, walked me to my car. Just so gracious and so lovely, and I couldn’t thank her enough for taking time from her own experience to help me with mine. Then I got a new kitten, and I put flea medicine on him, he had this terrible allergic reaction, shaking, foam all over his mouth, so I took him to the emergency vet. And a woman was there putting her dog down. My cat was fine, so I got to sit with her and got to sort of pay the favor back. Her dog was 16 years old. I told her, “A woman did this for me a couple of weeks ago, and if you don’t mind, I’d like to stay with you while the process happens
so you’re not alone.” I sat, held her hand, I hugged her. Just the little things that are kind of
priceless in life. And that’s how I want to live my life. And I want to have those types of
connections with people, And I want people to know that I’m listening to everything they’re
saying, and I hear them. If I can successfully do that and be present for people, then I feel like I will have a good life.

Who else are you?

I don’t know. Did you have a feeling like, “I dove into all of this as a way to have control over it, because it’s such an uncontrollable thing”? Having a mental illness, you just don’t know how you’ll feel. Doing all this research gave me a sense of control over this. Did you have that?

Yes.

So, who am I? On a normal basis, I’m super relaxed. My favorite day is just hanging out with my girlfriends, eating good food and just talking about our lives. And laughing. I feel like when we together, we’re like five years old. We giggle. I feel like when I’m not sort of under the weight of this depression, I’m pretty light. And I wouldn’t necessarily say I’m easygoing because I’m sort of always in thinking mode, but I love art, I love being around people, I love film, I’m an obsessive book reader, I love getting lost in stories, and yeah, I’m a really awesome auntie. My nephews and nieces, like I said, if they could all be my children, it would just be fantastic. I love them so much. They’re these extraordinary little human beings, and you can already see how they’re going to be in their adult lives. I always wanted to be a mom, and that’s been sort of a heavy topic to talk about. Genetically, I’m
probably not the best person to have a biological child. I’ve thought about this a lot, but know I’d be a really fantastic mother, but biologically, not a good idea … And I would adopt a child in a heartbeat if I could, but genetically, I wouldn’t want to pass this down to my child. It’s something I never mentioned.

When I first got my diagnoses, my doctors were all very much on the same page about my depression being situational. It had to do with my boyfriend, relationships. Well, over the course of years, it’s become pretty apparent it’s more of a biological issue. So I feel like I have the spirit of a mom, just with no kids. It’s just like I always, always thought that I would be a mom, and now I’m 39 and thinking, “Oh my gosh, there’s a good chance that’s not going to happen,” and I’m trying to figure out what life looks like without that. So yeah, I don’t know, that’s a tough question.

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3 thoughts on “Talking with Jessica Blau

    • Jess, your story moved me to tears. I feel you really understand me and I you. I recently made an attempt which involved 71 pills and 750ml of vodka. Although I didn’t take all the pills thanks to the intervention of a good friend, it has left me emotionally in a very bad place. I haven’t stopped having suicidal ideation since then (10 days ago). And like you say, I can’t seem to find the point of being grateful that I am still alive. I am working hard with a really good therapist and hope that I will be able to get out of this place before it gets so bad I end up back in the hospital. It’s just such a difficult road and I have had multiple attempts these last 3 years. Thank you for sharing your story. I feel comforted to know I am not alone and there are others out there who know what I am going through. Best of luck to you!

      • My dear Lynda, thank you so much for writing. I am so sorry to hear about your recent struggles, I know all too well how you are, or must be, feeling. I am so glad you are seeing a therapist. That has definetly helped me too, and helped me feel more normal about not having this overwhelming gratitude for how things have ended up. I can say that being interviewed by Cara Anna has been incredibly healing, I have read and re-read my transcript more than 50 times and each time I think, wow, this is me and this is my life. And you too have a very poswerful story to tell, so that someone like you and I can read it, and feel understood and supported and not so alone…I have more of my ECT info on my site at http://www.ilostmy30s.tumblr.com. All my best wishes, and perhaps we will cross paths again! jess

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