By the time she was twelve, Jackie had been told she was crazy in five different ways.
Insomnia. Generalized anxiety. Bipolar. Post-traumatic stress. Attention deficit. All of them, “disorders.”
As an interviewer, I had to ask her to repeat herself. How old were you? What were your diagnoses?
From my perspective, these diagnoses seemed a little beside the point when you considered the facts of her life. Jackie had lost her dad to suicide when she was only five. He shot himself in her parents' bedroom while her mother tried to pull the gun from his hand.
Of course she couldn’t sleep or concentrate. Of course she was always worried. Of course she was quick to anger. Far from being “crazy” or “disordered,” Jackie’s symptoms were a sign that she was fully human.
“What did people tell you about your dad’s suicide?” I asked. “How did they talk about it?”
Her mom tried to be tactful. “Your dad had a lot of things he struggled with. A lot of experiences that were just too hard for him. It’s not your fault.”
It was her job to say that. A child will always think a parent’s suicide is her fault. It’s the adults’ job to tell her it’s not – even if they can’t fathom it, either.
For a moment, I slipped on the shoes of five-year-old Jackie. “Not your fault” would be pretty hard to believe. My dad chose to leave, knowing he would leave me behind. Did he not love me? And if he didn’t love me, is it because I’m hard to love?
In Jackie’s words, “How do you not love me enough to stay for me?”
The years between ages five and eleven were a blur for Jackie. “I had friends,” she said. “I’d try to go to their houses, but I’d just be sad.” Key moments, like learning to ride a bike for the first time, were blanketed by her dad’s heavy absence. “He could have been there for this. He chose not to be.”
Jackie’s mom moved on rather quickly. She was remarried, gave birth to two more kids, and began drinking heavily. “To each his own,” Jackie shrugs. “She fed us, she kept a roof over our heads, and that’s all she could do.” There is no resentment in Jackie’s voice - just a deep, pained understanding.
Unsurprisingly, Jackie herself began experiencing suicidal ideation quite young. In part, it was because she was ready to be with her dad again. “I never believed my dad went to heaven. I always believed he was stuck here. I believed if I killed myself, my pain would be gone too, and we could just be here together.”
In part, Jackie wanted to die because her myriad symptoms made it hard to live. Anxiety, insomnia, post-traumatic stress – they were challenging, but they were not abnormal. These were typical response to atypical events.
The problem was this: at the inpatient treatment facility, no one told her that. Rather, she was loaded up with drugs and told that these were lifelong illnesses. “It was so hard to be told you were crazy,” says Jackie. “There’s no saving, fixing, or making sense of what you’re feeling, because you’re crazy, and these drugs will make it better.”
The drugs did not make it better. And so, Jackie swapped in her own drugs – lots of them. Pills, acid, ecstasy, heroin, meth. She started cutting, too. She had sex that she didn’t want to have. Jackie is gay, and sleeping with men was not about desire at all. Jackie puts it bluntly: “I slept with men in hopes that they would be able to fill the void that my dad left empty.”
I ask Jackie if she had any friends at this time. Internally, I’m thinking that a close friend might have provided more healing than a drug or even a stint in treatment.
“I didn’t have any friends,” she says. “I would work hard to make friends, but I couldn’t maintain friendships because I had so much going on in my brain. It’s hard to keep friends when you don’t want to be alive.”
And besides that: she had been told she was crazy. Unpredictable. And perhaps most incriminating of all, while her relational schema was still developing, she had conceptualized herself as the reason for her father’s death. “I didn’t want to give anyone the chance to be hurt by me,” says Jackie. “Hurting people hurts me.”
If they are lucky, people with severe mental illness hit bottom. For Jackie, that happened when she was arrested in 2015.
“Do you mind telling me what you were arrested for? It’s completely fine if not.” I’m timid, having known Jackie for only an hour. Her response is quick and firm. “I’m never ashamed of who I’ve been.”
Jackie was out of money and needed gas to get home. High as a kite, she walked into a Wal Mart, hoping to steal something and return it for cash. Instead, she spotted a purse in a shopping cart. Without even thinking, she grabbed it.
Almost immediately, she knew she was caught. She called up her friend, a local cop: “You guys are going to be looking for me. I’m going to go give my kids a kiss, and then I’ll meet you wherever you want.”
True to her word, Jackie met them at the police station.
From a purely empirical standpoint, it is not surprising that Jackie was arrested. The individual risk factors were there. Poverty. Trauma. Mental illness. Drug use.
What is surprising is this: her stay in jail was nothing short of rehabilitative. Jail is where she chose to turn her life around.
Jackie spent 10 ½ months in solitary confinement. She chose solitary confinement. When faced with the option to be alone or with others, Jackie chose to be in solitary for 23 hours per day, every day, for 10 ½ months.
Like I said: Jackie’s diagnoses represent typical responses to atypical circumstances. But choosing solitary confinement, to the best of my knowledge, is not typical. As someone with my own fair share of mental illnesses, I can’t imagine being in such close, constant, and purposeful proximity to my own thoughts.
Jackie had just lost her house, her car, her husband, and her kids. Right before her arrest, Jackie’s mom had been diagnosed with stage 4 breast cancer. The facts of her life, and her powerlessness to affect them, would have been enough to make anyone crazy.
But Jackie had been battling with “crazy” since she was 12. These same circumstances were enough to make her a little more sane.
“I’m not religious. I’m actually more spiritual,” says Jackie. That being said, in jail she read the Bible about 12 times. She also began singing, something she’d loved to do since she was a kid, but rarely permitted herself. “Singing soothed my soul. It made me feel better.”
And most importantly, Jackie sat. With her own thoughts. Twenty-three hours per day. “It was beautiful to have conversations with myself,” says Jackie. She told herself all the things that no one told her at twelve. “It’s okay.” “You’re okay.” “You’ve got this.”
She spoke to her father, too. “It’s okay that you left me,” she told him. “You were crazy too.” She no longer blamed him for the fact that he couldn’t learn to live with his illness – and more importantly, she did not blame herself for that, either.
In short, Jackie says, “I just had to sit and make sense of all the chaos in my brain.” And she had the ability to ask herself, “How is life going to be different when you get out?’”
How, indeed. When Jackie first got out of jail, she was living in a hotel room. She had extreme social anxiety. She did not make eye contact, she walked with her hands behind her back, and she did not open doors; these had been the rules in jail. And yet, on my Zoom call with Jackie, she is perfectly sociable, leaning against her own car and inside of her own garage. Part way through the interview, her son pokes a head through the doorway. “Good night, love you buddy!” she says. Only four years after hitting bottom, Jackie has all the makings of a happy life.
I have to ask: “How did you go from living in a hotel room to where you are right now?
“I didn’t ever give up,” she says. “I didn’t allow my mental space to ruin what my goals were.” Within a week of leaving jail, Jackie got a job. She got a car. She worked around the clock. (To this day, she works two jobs and two side jobs.) With the vehemence she developed in solitary, Jackie kept her negative thoughts in check. “Stop. Stop,” she'd tell them. “Better is coming.”
Jackie’s tenacity reminds me of a passage from Step 1 of the Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions of Alcoholics Anonymous: With all the fervor with which the drowning seize life preservers, [the most desperate cases] almost invariably got well (p. 22).
For Jackie, “getting well” doesn’t mean her symptoms are gone. Instead, it means two key things:
First, Jackie knows enough about her own mental illnesses to understand how to manage her symptoms. And manage, she does; I was floored by her laundry list of tools. Meditation. St. John’s Wort. Exercise. CBD gummies. Essential oils. A crystal for every occasion. Managing her symptoms has meant learning how to respond to life, rather than react. Every morning, before she even gets out of bed, she takes command of her own thoughts. “I grasp my thoughts before they get ahold of me.”
Second, getting well for Jackie has meant finding meaning in her pain, and finding purpose in overcoming it.
“I wouldn’t change a thing about my story,” says Jackie. Had one thing been different – had one painful scene been cut - Jackie might never have found the empathy she needed to forgive her dad or to understand others who struggle. “I can feel for the people who want to die,” she says. “It’s beautiful to be able to understand another person who feels like that...But I can also feel for the people who want to live.”
I ask Jackie about the relationships that matter most to her today. “My kids and their father,” she says. “My mom.” Her mother’s cancer has been in remission for four years, and Jackie has gotten a second chance at that relationship. Her little sister. Her best friend of eight years. “But my relationship with myself -- that comes first.”
Jackie knows enough about mental illness to know that this is not selfish. Any problems that she does not resolve for herself will simply be passed down to her kids. “When we end abruptly,” she says, “all of the problems we didn’t want to face go to someone else.”
Today, Jackie is rigorously accountable for her past and her present. “No one forced me to make my choices,” she says. “I did it. Part of owning who I am is not blaming anyone else for who I am.” And then, she cracks a smile. “I’m also not going to blame you for how amazing I am right now.”
*Note: In this post, I use the word "crazy" because Jackie uses the word "crazy."