This morning, as I do most mornings, I uncovered Darwin, the iguana, put my hot cereal in the microwave, and fired up the laptop. I checked my email, and saw something unusual amidst you-can-still-order-our-wonderful-products-and-have-them-delivered-in-time-for-Christmas emails. A name I recognized from middle school and high school with a subject line of “just saying hi”. I dismissed the name as pure coincidence because it’s not an especially unusual name, nor was it someone with whom I ever exchanged more than a few words, words that I admit weren’t so nice because I was a jerk to him. However, when I opened it I discovered it was in fact the person I knew from school.
He said he’d been searching for people whose names he could remember, purely out of curiosity and interest, like “Hey, whatever happened to so-and-so from way back when?” It seems, Lee Ann Pitts is a name that sticks in people’s minds because whenever someone tracks me down from days of yore, that’s more or less what they tell me. While it’s far easier to find information about Lee Ann Thill than Lee Ann Pitts, apparently it doesn’t take much effort to determine that we are one and the same person.
It’s weird for me to consider anyone I know outside of the DOC being privy to what I still consider my personal business despite the fact that it’s publicly available to anyone who might go looking for it. It still makes me feel peculiar that my non-D friends have all this knowledge about me, the kind of factoids that I would never share between sips of Diet Coke while lounging at the annual pool party or spill while savoring entry #4 at the chili cook-off. “You mean I never told you about the wacky psychoanalyst who asked me about my dreams, and who I’m pretty sure was old enough to have shared beers with Freud??” As I’ve discussed a few times over the last several months and as recently as last week, I’m definitely uncomfortable that people who might have some professional connection to me know way more about me than I would ever disclose to them otherwise, be it clients, potential clients, past clients, or other professionals. It’s flat-out surreal to think about people who witnessed my psychological implosion, unbeknownst to them, discovering what became of me, and learning exactly how untogether I was once upon a time.
I don’t talk about the psychological implosion much, mostly because shedding light on it makes me cringe something fierce. However, call it a cosmic coincidence, but this guy from my homeroom emailed me on a rather poignant day. I probably never would have mentioned it had I not received this email, but reading it, thinking back to what he might have observed versus what was really happening with me, I remembered that today is the 20th anniversary of my suicide attempt.
I can remember being overwhelmed with sadness and despair starting when I was maybe 13 or 14, but depression is so insidious that it wasn’t until it was 16 and it was really bad that it seemed something was truly wrong beyond just a normal moody teenager. In the couple of years between 8th or 9th grade and 11th grade, the crying increased, and eventually, so did the wishes that I would die. I had always been a good student, but during the first half of my junior year in high school, I had started to skip school. I had no motivation to do the work, and at first a day here and a day there turned into several days a week for weeks on end of being absent. I’d get up and pretend to get ready for school, but then my mom would leave for work, and I’d settle onto the sofa in my sweatpants. When I did show up, my friends greeted me with surprise because it became normal for me to not be there. The same kid who had felt tortured over getting her first C on a report card only a year earlier was now failing almost all of her classes, and couldn’t think herself out of her front door, let alone muster the optimism and motivation to give a crap about school.
On the day I tried to kill myself, I had stayed home from school. Back during the days before caller ID, if the phone rang, you had no real way of knowing who was at the other end. The school often called to verify I was home, if I recall correctly, so when the phone rang, I answered, but it was my mom calling because she suspected I hadn’t gone to school. She was pissed, and I’m sure she was also unsure of what to do with a teenage kid who had gone from academically successful with lofty goals to a kid who didn’t leave the house or even care enough to shower. She’d been trying to convince me to see a psychologist for a couple of months. Initially, I’d refused, insisting that was only for crazy people, and I wasn’t crazy – or at least I didn’t think I was. Eventually, I’d relented to the idea though because the time came when admitting I might be crazy seemed more tolerable than the depression that was choking the life out of me. She had made an appointment, but the appointment hadn’t occurred yet.
She was on her way home, and I was frantic. I was already so miserable I wanted to die, and she was surely going to punish me, compounding the already unbearable misery of my existence. I had been thinking about trying to kill myself for a while, and it seemed like as good a time to do it as any because I couldn’t imagine feeling any worse. More significantly, I couldn’t imagine feeling any better. I looked though the cleaning supplies. Once I found something that seemed toxic enough, I mixed it with the Crystal Lite iced tea. It smelled… chemically. I took a sip, and it tasted awful. I tried to drink some more, and eventually, realized it tasted too awful to actually consume. No surprise.
By the time I realized the cleaner wasn’t the answer, my mom was home. She was livid, and I felt like the world was collapsing, so I reconsidered my options, and headed to the medicine cabinet. We didn’t have much in the way of medications in our house – other than insulin of course. I don’t know if it occurred to me to overdose on insulin, but that scares me now so I have to guess it scared me then. I looked through the OTC medications that we had, and there was a pretty full bottle of Tylenol. I took it into my room, and sat on the pink quilt my great-grandma had made for me. I took out the pills, putting them in little piles of 5. I made 8 piles before deciding that would be enough. 40. I couldn’t begin to tell you why I decided on 40. Maybe 40 looked like enough, whereas 30 didn’t seem like it would do the trick. Maybe I didn’t take the entire bottle because I didn’t want her to wonder what had happened to the Tylenol after I was dead. Regardless, of what my reasoning was, and I use that term very loosely, I swallowed them. Then I waited for something to happen.
I was supposed to babysit that afternoon, so I went. Do I know how irresponsible and stupid that was? Twenty years later, uh, yes. I felt OK, and I was trying to behave as if everything was normal, so it seemed like the obvious thing to do. Shortly before the kid’s dad arrived home, I started to feel sick. He’d barely walked in the door when I rushed to the bathroom and threw up. There was some short conversation about a stomach flu I think, and then I walked home. I was feeling pretty sick by then as it had been 3 or 4 hours since I’d taken the pills. I don’t remember who called who, but I remember lying on my mom’s bed with only the light from the hall shining into her room, talking to my best friend. I don’t remember anything much about our conversation other than I was crying, I told her I had taken the pills, and she begged me to tell my mom.
My mom had gone out for some reason that now escapes me, but she arrived back home soon thereafter, and I told her what I had done. My best friend called again to make sure my mom knew. Somehow we ended up at the office of the psychologist with whom we had an appointment. I’m not sure if that was the scheduled appointment or maybe my mom had moved the appointment to that evening after finding I had skipped school yet again. He advised us to go to the emergency room.
Needless to say, it was horrible. I felt about as sick as I’ve probably ever felt, like I was going to die, as fortune would have it. They made me drink charcoal mix that is designed to absorb ingested poison before you regurgitate it. However, I think that was a lot of too little too late as the Tylenol was in my system by then. I remember lots of doctors and nurses. I remember crying. I remember my mom looking scared, angry, disappointed… and devastated. I remember wanting to live but wanting to die all at the same time. I remember the light box used to view x-rays and the little square hospital-green tiles on the wall. I remember tubes. I remember being scared because they said the Tylenol might have permanently damaged my liver. I remember being transferred from the ER to the ICU. I remember having to lay on my right side, I think to help keep me from throwing up. I remember facing the glass separating me from the nurses’ station, and I remember my mom trying to sleep but not really sleeping in a chair in-between me and the glass. I remember the nurse coming in every hour or so. I remember apologizing over and over and over and over again.
Physically, I felt better in the morning, and I was transferred to a regular hospital room. Then I heard a voice I recognized. This was the first day of Christmas vacation, and in the bed next to me was one of my classmates, one of the popular girls, getting a nose job so she could heal in time to return to school after the break. I was mortified. This was before HIPAA, so I never really knew if she figured out why I was there, and if so, what kind of rumors, or worse yet, what kind of truths were spread about me because of that unfortunate encounter.
The psychiatrist came to talk to me, and I was admitted to the hospital’s psych unit later that day. I stayed one night. That next day, Christmas Eve, my mom and my two best friends came to see me. I don’t know what I would have done without my friends, and thankfully, my mom knew that, and despite hospital policy, my mom advocated for them to get permission to see me. I begged the psychiatrist to let me go home for Christmas, and after some negotiating and promises I wouldn’t try to hurt myself, I was released. I don’t even really remember Christmas that much. I got a gift certificate to a ski shop, so on the 26th, we went to the store, and I picked out a ski jacket before heading to the psychiatric hospital where I stayed for 6 weeks.
It should really go without saying, don’t try to kill yourself. However, as obvious as it sounds, some people try, and some of those people succeed. If you’ve never been that depressed, it’s hard to understand what would make a person want to do that. As someone who’s been there, it’s hard to explain. Depression doesn’t make sense though, not to the person with it, and certainly not to the people who care about anyone with it.
I had to be monitored for several days after the overdose to make sure my skin didn’t turn yellow, a sign that my liver was damaged and I might have needed a transplant, but I was lucky there was no permanent physical damage from the Tylenol. The only real scars are the ones I feel when I think about it, maybe ones my mom feels, or maybe even ones my best friend who convinced me to tell my mom what I had done that day feels – I don’t know because we never discuss it. Whether you know it or not, every time you see me or talk to me or read this blog, the evidence is here. Much about who I am today can be traced back to that day so it will forever linger with me. If nothing else, the six weeks I spent in the hospital following my suicide attempt was when I first encountered art therapy. That made an obvious impression on me. So it’s evident in the big things, but it’s in the little things too. When I have a headache, get the economy-sized bottle of acetaminophen from the bathroom cabinet, and read that more than 8 500mg caplets in a 24 hour period can cause liver damage. When I hear about a client who’s attempted suicide with some otherwise innocuous OTC pain reliever, and then raise an eyebrow and snort at the term, “pain reliever”. When it’s a few days before Christmas, and I remember ruining Christmas for everyone close to me, and I wonder if they think about it too, and if they do, whether they feel anger or sadness or contempt – or forgiveness. Or when I get an email out of the clear blue from someone who saw me unravel without even realizing what they were seeing until 20 years to the day after the fact.