Friday, May 18, 2001 was the day I decided to die. I’d made several attempts through overdosing on pills or slashing my wrists before, but this was different. I’d taken plenty of time to think it through to be sure that death was really the “right” thing to do rather than acting impulsively as before. I had thought for a long time that I was bad for my family, especially my children. I had bought the lie that many abused people believe: that it was somehow my fault. I believed that my “badness” was somehow contagious and that it was my duty as a loving mother to spare my children from any further exposure. I felt ashamed because of all the pain I had put them through during the years of my illness and guilty that I had allowed it to go on this long. So this time, I was determined. I planned carefully so there would not, could not be any last minute change of mind, and no one could “accidentally” rescue me.
I took my time taking the pills, washing them down with my favorite soda while listening John Denver’s “I’m Sorry” over and over. I put the gifts I had bought and the letters I had written to my daughters on the dining room table then walked to my bedroom to lie down for a peaceful death. I fell twice on the way. As I lay down, I could feel the sluggishness in my brain. It was starting. It was a relief to let my heavy eyelids and know that the guilt, pain and confusion would soon be over.
Why I opened my eyes, I don’t know, except that it must have been a “God thing.” Perhaps a miracle? I’m still surprised that I could open them, but I did. And when I did, they focused on the pictures of my two daughters, Catheryn and Elizabeth. I had given careful consideration as to how my death would affect them. Catheryn was 22 and newly-married. Elizabeth, at 18, had just graduated from high school. I believed sincerely that this act was the most loving act that I, as a mother could do. My confused and twisted thinking had convinced me that if I loved them, I would leave them and stop hurting them, stop tainting their lives with my infected presence. Hopefully, now they could lead normal, happy lives, free from the pain and the evil that living with me had forced upon them.
Then, a second inexplicable occurence. I began to think with a clarity that cut like a laser through my drug-induced stupor—a clarity that I hadn’t experienced even when I wasn’t drugged. And I knew with a certainty that was beyond a logical thought process—somehow I just knew that with this one act, I would devastate my daughters. Their lives would be changed irreparably. And not for the better as I had thought a moment before. How could they possibly reason through their mother’s suicide. . . how this person of whom they were a part and who claimed to love them could choose to abandon them? I had always been there to kiss their bruised knees or soothe their wounded hearts. But now for this, the greatest pain they had ever experienced, for this, the ultimate abandonment, I would not be there to comfort them. I foresaw their confusion and their rage. And I would never have the chance to explain it. The letters I had written couldn’t possibly convey a logical explanation with which they could comfort themselves. The very person who had given them life was choosing to take her own. That was an irony I knew they would not forgive.
Now what? I was already in the death process. Surely I’d gone too far. I turned on my side and reached for the phone, but the numbers were blurry and seemed to be moving. I fought to make my muscles respond to dial 911. Incredibly, I succeeded and a voice answered. Slurring my words, I told the nameless savior on the other end of the line what I’d done and listened intently to her instructions. She told me to go to the front door and unlock it, because paramedics were on the way. I tried to walk, but collapsed. She encouraged me to get there however I could, so I began to crawl. The distance from my bedroom through the living room seemed the length of a football field.
My apartment was on the second floor with stairs leading down to my front door. By the time I reached the stairs, the paramedics were banging on the door and yelling. The 911 operator was still on the line with me, urging me on. Now she instructed me to put down the phone so I could concentrate on getting down the stairs and unlocking the door. When I finally reached the bottom of the stairs, my energy was spent. The officers were still yelling and couldn’t hear my faint voice when I told them I was trying to unlock the door. Finally, I asked God for strength and managed to put all my weight on the lock, forcing it open.
Immediately, I was snatched up by men in blue as I struggled to remain conscious to answer the paramedics’ questions. After the IV was started, the EKG leads attached and an oxygen masked placed over my nose and mouth, I had a question of my own. “Am I going to die?” A strong man with a compassionate face said, “Ma’am, I won’t lie to you. You’re in bad shape, but we’re going to do our best.” Just minutes earlier dying had been my goal, and now I had to fight to survive.
As I faded in and out of consciousness, I realized that I had made a decision—a decision to live—if I was given the chance. I heard them calling in my vitals blood pressure is dropping; pupils are fixed; heartbeat is erratic. Every time I would drift off, a voice would call be back, “Ms. Miller! Jessica! Open your eyes. Stay with me. Tell me about your family. Do you have any kids?” Anything to keep me awake and fighting.
After what seemed an interminable amount of time, we arrived at the emergency department of the nearest trauma center. Blue coats swarmed around me in a flurry of intense activity. I don’t remember most of what they did. I do remember asking again if I was going to die. A kind nurse patted my foot gently and said, “We’re going to do the best we can, sweetie.” In some twisted way, I found humor in those words. I’d spent enough time around hospitals to know that those words could often be translated as, “Not a snowflakes chance in hell, honey, but they won’t let me say that out loud.” I thought that to myself, then passed out again.
I awoke to the sound of a voice near my head, shouting, “I’ve got a sinus rhythm!” (referring to the normal rhythm of the heart) and another voice near my feet: “You’re kidding! Is it holding?”
“Yes!” I heard, followed by the sound of cheers. I had survived.
I had stood on the brink of death and had chosen to turn away. I wasn’t one to play games. I had my chance to just walk into death, and I had changed my mind. So, if I was going to live, then I had to do something differently. It was obvious that what I’d been doing wasn’t working. It had gotten me here in this trauma room, begging God for my life.
Live. How was I supposed to do that? For so long I had simply survived, dragging my feet from day to day. Praying each night that I would not wake up in the morning and greeting the morning with despair.
I had been in treatment for 11 years and was diagnosed with dissociative identity disorder (DID) early on. I remember when my psychiatrist at the time asked me if I heard voices in my head. I laughed out loud at the ridiculous question. When he questioned why I was laughing, I responded, “Because it’s a silly question. Of course I hear voices in my head. Everyone hears voices.” Instead of laughing with me, his face and that of my therapist, who was also in the room, grew quite serious. “No,” he said, “Not everyone hears voices.” I was incredulous, sure he was joking. “You’re telling me that you don’t hear voices in your head.” I stated, though it was more of a question. He shook his head. I turned to my therapist. “What about you? You hear voices in your head, don’t you?” Now I was pleading. I knew where they were headed, and I didn’t want to go there. As she shook her head, my mind was racing. How can it be that they don’t hear the voices? I hear them all the time. I’ve never been without them. They argue, they tell me what to do and say, and they sing to me. How can it be possible that I’m so different?
After a long moment, my doctor said, “Jessica, we think you may have dissociative identity disorder. It’s what we used to call multiple personality disorder or MPD.” “Ho, whoa!” I thought. This is what I was afraid he was going to say, but I still wasn’t ready to hear it. After explaining the symptoms the staff had observed (I was hospitalized at the time.), he told me that it was not a diagnosis that he had made lightly. It was only after his own observation, discussion with the staff, looking at my history and careful consideration that he brought it up. “So, now what?” I questioned, surprised I could find my voice.
“Now we begin to treat you more effectively than we’ve been able to before.”
“Does this mean I’m crazy?”
“Will I ever get well?”
“It takes a lot of hard work, and we’re just learning how to treat DID effectively. But I think you can.”
I wanted to, at least I thought I did. But there was no way I could comprehend at that time just how hard it would be. Anais Nin was right when she said, “There came a time when the risk to remain tight in the bud was more painful than the risk it took to blossom.” Or as it’s often been translated, “Change is possible only when the pain of staying the same becomes greater than the pain of change.” It took 11 years for me to get to be willing to make a real change and go toe-to-toe with my fear.
Living with DID
I’d been living with DID for most of my life. That’s why I couldn’t remember a time without the voices. Now that I was aware that this wasn’t how most people lived and I was in therapy, I wanted to understand how I had developed DID: what had caused it and how to deal with it.
I had remembered being molested by a neighbor, but I had never thought of it as being a big deal. My defenses and my resistance to knowing the truth, the whole truth, was strong. The atmosphere there in the psych hospital and the kindness of the doctors and therapists was something I hadn’t experienced for such a long time that I’d forgotten what it was like to feel safe. I realized that, until then, I didn’t even know I hadn’t felt safe. Memories began to come back at odd times in unguarded moments when I was thinking about anything but abuse. The first snippet of a memory came to me when I was walking on the grounds. A black and white photograph appeared in my mind, seemingly out of nowhere. It was taken from what would have been my perspective, looking on at what was happening. My dress was pulled up and someone, a man, was touching me. In the picture, the man’s head was cropped out so I couldn’t identify him. That’s how it began. Gradually, the pictures changed to movies with sound, but the identity or identities of those hurting me were hidden for a long time. I was only given clues, such as the vivid memory of the wallpaper in my parents’ bedroom. We had moved from that house when I was seven, and I didn’t even remember the wallpaper in my own room. But I could draw in colorful detail the pattern of yellow flowers and vines of ttheir bedroom.
At first, I didn’t trust those memories. I would tell myself I’d seen pictures. Or when a memory of abuse came back, it was like I was watching a movie. I would be certain that I must have seen something like that on television. The fact that I’d never watched such movies couldn’t convince me it was actually a memory. . . my memory.
With time, different parts began to emerge and identify themselves to me. I’m not sure any of them had names before they began to communicate with me. Sometimes it seemed like some of them scrambled to come up with a name, as though they hadn’t needed names when they were communicating openly just with one another. I began to see how my system had been working to keep me operating successfully in the world, as a wife, mother and professional.
When I came home from the hospital to my husband and daughters, we all had to adjust. Catheryn had taken on the “mother” role and felt supplanted when I tried to step back into my place in the family. And then there was the issue of my parts and how my family would now relate to me and my parts.
May 18, 2001 started out as the day I decided to die and ended as the day I decided to get well. And that made all the difference. I decided. I chose. It was just that simple. I created an image in my mind of a line drawn in the sand, a line I would never allow myself to cross again. Over the line, I pictured my finger drawing the date. Now I had made a commitment—not to a doctor, not to a therapist, not to anyone but myself and God. And every time I was tempted to go back to the old ways of coping through drugs or cutting, I forced myself to look at that line. I reminded myself that I had faced death and backed away. Every choice after that resulted from that one critical choice.
It sounds so simple to just decide. And it is simple, but not easy. Now, I had no excuses. I couldn’t back down. I couldn’t run away. And I’d heard it countless times before: It was the mantra at the Trauma Unit at Timberlawn Behavioral Center, which had become my second home. How many times had I sat in Dr. Colin Ross’s group and heard him ask the question, “So when are you going to decide to get well?”
I’d always thought that was a dumb and insensitive question. Did he think I wanted to live this way? Didn’t he know that if I knew how to get well, I’d do it? I wondered. I had just never really “gotten it” before. Now that I did, I realized it was simple. And now, it was time to face the truth.