Trigger Warning: Suicide
Back then, no one talked about anxiety or depression and that would continue to quietly grow. That would eventually lead to suicidal thoughts and tendencies. People need to be talking about this more to show that everyone gets depressed. If you have depression, you are not alone. Those suicidal thoughts that attack your self-esteem and self-worth should be dealt with. You can recover from depression. There is light at the end of the tunnel where you can go back to living a normal life. There are survivors out there just like the guest today. Join Tim Westbrook as he talks to suicide survivor, TEDx speaker, and author of the book, Worth It, Erin Matlock about overcoming ongoing destructive thoughts and self-worth. Erin had several attempted suicides until she realized that, you got to hang on to what you can. She underwent years of therapy and meds and even spent a whole year unable to move from her bed. Nevertheless, she fought back depression to regain control of her life. Now, she is an advocate for suicide prevention and helps people who are suffering from depression. Learn how you can overcome depression and live another day.
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How To Survive A Suicidal Mind With Erin Matlock
Thinking About Suicide?
Welcome to another episode of the show, sponsored by Camelback Recovery, Arizona’s preferred sober living option to help AA newcomers stay sober during their first year in the program. If that’s you or someone you know, then you are in the right place. Let’s get clear on one thing. We believe that a relapse or a slip is not a part of recovery. That’s exactly why this show is dedicated to you or any loved one you know in their first year of striving to live a clean and sober life.
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I’m here with Erin Matlock. She is a survivor of suicide and has struggled with depression, anxiety, and shame. She is a coach and advisor whose integrative approach attracts media personalities, New York Times best-selling authors, elite athletes, and highly visible entrepreneurs. She guides them through intense transition and rapid growth in their professional and personal lives. An international TEDx speaker, Erin boldly challenges the stigma of suicide through deeply personal accounts of survival and public recovery.
She’s the author of Worth It, a book of her viral poetry and essays, the Founder of Brain Summit, and a conceptual artist working at the intersection of sculptural paint and language. Erin’s paintings hang in private and public collections in the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, Italy, Japan, and France. In this episode, Erin and I are going to talk about how to overcome ongoing destructive thoughts and self-worth. Erin, welcome to the show.
Thank you so much for having me, and thank you, everyone, for coming along on this journey with us.
It’s so awesome to have you here. I’m looking forward to this conversation. I met you at a Genius Network event here a few months ago. I’ve seen you around. I saw you at the Celebration of Fine Art, where you were forming and selling art. It’s so cool. I’m looking forward to learning more about you and your background. Let’s start with that. Tell me about your background.
I am an advocate for suicide prevention and survival. I started to have challenges with suicidal thoughts and tendencies at about the age of fifteen. That was a whole different time. We were looking at a time when we didn’t have the internet, didn’t have a lot of information, and people didn’t talk openly about feeling like harming themselves. From the ages of 15 to 30, I had 4 escalating attempts on my life, 4 psychiatric hospitalizations, many psychiatrists, therapists, and group therapy programs, all of which are the reason I am still alive.
Where did you grow up first off?
It was Ohio for the first ten years, and then I lived in Louisiana. I spent the majority of my life in Texas.
Did you have any siblings?
I have one, my brother.
Is he your older brother?
Do you remember your very first thought of suicide?
I don’t know if I remember my first but it was around the age of fifteen. What had happened was that I was always a very isolated child. I was well-liked. I did well in school. My parents stayed together. They are still together. Thankfully, they are still alive. I grew up in a loving household but I was always challenged with expressing myself with the need to please people and not being able to manage the depth of the emotions that I would feel. What seemed to wash off other people didn’t wash off me. As a child, that was extremely challenging. We had already moved to Louisiana. We stayed there for five years. I got adjusted. That move was difficult for me too at age 10.
You said you recall your first suicidal ideations were around fifteen. Did you struggle with depression, anxiety, and shame? Did you struggle with any of that prior to being fifteen? In other words, was it progressive?
The longer you can distract yourself from harming yourself, the more you can strengthen your ability to hold off on the urge.
It was. I didn’t know what depression was. We didn’t speak that in my family, so I wouldn’t have been able to term it that or anxiety. I didn’t know any kids who went to therapy. We had one family on my street in Midwestern that was divorced. That was the ‘70s and then the early ‘80s. I wouldn’t have been able even to be aware that any of that was happening to me.
If you don’t know, you are like, “What’s this feeling? What’s this pressure in my chest?” I remember there was a time when I was sober. I had this feeling in my chest. I remember talking with a therapist. She said, “It’s depression. Depression is to press down.” I was like, “That makes sense.” It makes sense that you don’t know what it is but you are feeling something that’s uncomfortable.
It was a deep sadness and a separation from other people. I did not understand why I felt so different and uncomfortable in my own skin. I felt out of place. I always felt like my skin was burning. I was well-liked. That’s the thing. I was athletic. I was very good at school. I could perform to a level that no one knew anything was wrong but as a small child, I was dealing with the fact of having so much self-hatred or shame that I felt different.
I’m 5’10”. I have been 5’10” since I was thirteen years old. That’s in seventh grade. I was 5’5” by age ten, which is a size of a grown woman. To be introverted and shy, I’m very reclusive. I like to be alone. I don’t like a lot of attention. To be that tall, I remember always asking God, “Why would you make someone like me that tall? There’s no place to hide.” There never was a place to hide. I always stood out. You can see my old childhood photos. It’s like all these kids, and then there’s me.
It’s one of those things you can look back and laugh at but at the time, I bet it wasn’t funny.
I dealt with body image issues. I felt bigger than other kids. My body was growing differently than other girls. I hope they don’t do that in schools now. I even remember in seventh grade that the gym teacher brought in a scale. We weren’t getting on the scale, and she wasn’t telling everybody our weight but we were doing this thing in the gym. It was this training. We had to have our pre-weight and then our after-weight. We all had to get up and get on the scale. I thought I was going to die because I knew.
I wasn’t even overweight at that time. I was an athlete. I was very muscular for that size of a child but I was a grown woman. I wasn’t going to be 9 pounds like the other girls. I was going to have a grown woman’s weight who was 5’10”, which was a weird weight. To have her even see it, she didn’t care. She wasn’t shocked but those are the type of things that maybe some kids would recover from. They would be upset or have hurt feelings. That shook my world to the point where I didn’t want to go back to school. We didn’t have homeschool at that time. I should have been taken out of school. My parents had no idea how these things affected me. I had almost no resilience. Going to school was so painful each day.
Did you say you had a lot of shame around that?
I had a lot of shame around feeling so different and not being able to make sense of who I was.
That must have been so hard. When I think of shame, I think of guilt leaving to shame. When you lie, cheat or steal, you have guilt and then at least shame. Here, you have this shame that is from nowhere.
It just existed as a human.
Let’s go back to when you moved. What was that like?
We made two moves. One, when I was ten, from Ohio to Louisiana, we stayed five years there as my father was progressing in his career. We then moved into Houston right after my freshman year of high school. I switched from that.
Those are both tough times to move.
If my parents could do it again, we would probably choose differently but you can’t. This is the career of the person who was paying the bills. Every parent deserves to have their dreams fulfilled, too. My brother did fine moving. All these things played a part, and they happened to be who I was. I didn’t adjust.
I have been in Catholic school my whole life. My first public school was 4,000 kids or almost 4,000 kids from a 400-person high school. There were a lot of things that stacked, whereas somebody else’s child would have been like, “This is a new adventure, new friends, and a bigger school. How cool is this?” It was the end of the world that I couldn’t control. I had zero control. It was a very difficult school for me to break into.
Did you turn to drugs and alcohol?
No, I didn’t. I don’t even know why not. I don’t know why I’ve never struggled with drugs. I didn’t even soothe with pot or cigarettes. At the time, because I was very athletic, I didn’t struggle with my weight. I was never naturally thin. I always had to be on top of the weight. Probably one of the things that saved me was athletics. It had something to hang on to.
If drugs and alcohol are the solutions, sports can be the solution, too.
Whatever you have to grab onto, you grab onto it. Sometimes, it’s helpful. Sometimes it’s not. Sometimes, it could be helpful in smaller doses, and sometimes, never. It does surprise me. I turned to write. I did a lot of writing. I white-knuckled it, which sounds bizarre. The other thing I had going for me was a very strong, loving, and secure home. I think about that. It was just me, my brother, my mom, my dad, and the dog at the time. I was very lucky to be in a household where those things were things I held onto. I was like, “What would happen to them if I left this world?”
Even as a teenager, we would sometimes break from our parents during our teenage years. There’s a lot of drama. Certainly, there has always been some drama with me. We had a fairly healthy household. It was as healthy as it could get because no household is perfectly healthy. That helped me hang on and not start or make an attempt on my life that early. It wasn’t until about 23 that I made the first attempt in my life.
You started having suicidal ideations at about fifteen years old. Did it progress? Was it back and forth?
Yes. As I got through my sophomore year and was able to get to junior year, I started to make my first friends. I didn’t have friends. It was such a strange environment. You start to feel into how you are going to exist in school. I loved academics and learning. I had some good teachers, and that helped but I look back on a lot of it and there was no reason that I would have survived that high school and that time of my life.
I remember how depressed I was every day, waking up with dread and anxiety. Going to school and you walk through so raw and numb. For some reason, I was such an obedient child. I figured, “This is what I’m supposed to do.” Academics were very important in my household, so I was supposed to achieve, and that’s what I did. I worked to achieve it.
A lot of people with depression can recover while paying their bills or taking care of their children. Everyone has their own journey.
You make it through high school, and then what?
I went to college. College is funny because college looks like depression, addiction, and all these maladaptive things. You can sleep late or stay up all night. People are doing drugs, and they’ not considered anything wrong with it. People were having sex all over the place. Everybody’s college experience is different. I was in Austin, University of Texas. It’s a wonderful school but it’s all over the place. I fit in because people were sad, and people were not sad. People had anxiety and panic. I could mask and hide in plain sight.
As long as I had a goal to hang on to, which was graduation, then there was something to work for. We know that whether you are going to quit cigarettes when you are first getting sober or working on self-harm tendencies, the longer you can distract yourself from taking the puff from using or harming yourself, the more we exercise and strengthen our ability to hold off on the urge. That’s what it is.
I had this goal. I was going to graduate. It allowed me to function as a depressive in college. I had really good friends. I got out of that high school, which was a horrible environment for me. I was accepted. Austin is a very accepting town. I felt loved. I had a new family, which were friends who were not perfect. They were all like me in different ways. In that, I had strong support.
Did anybody else know that you were struggling with depression and anxiety, or did you completely keep it to yourself?
Yeah. I completely kept it to myself. That was my whole life. That’s how my parents were raised. You kept things inside your home. You didn’t tell the world about what was going on in your home. Those were the times that we lived in. I was a very obedient child and bought into it. I also saw it mirrored back to me, so I wasn’t aware. I wasn’t trained in the way that I am now. I could look at someone’s dysfunction and understand the layers that build to get to that level of dysfunction. I was a kid.
Let’s talk about your first attempt at suicide. What was it like leading up to that first attempt?
I was going downhill. I was having a lot of trouble with anxiety that was so fierce that I would shake uncontrollably at things. It was this feeling that you were going to be killed. It wasn’t like I thought someone was coming to kill me but I thought I was going to die. I was working towards graduation. I graduated, and everybody came up. It was a fun time.
Within the next three months, I downward spiraled. I had taken an extra six months to graduate. I changed my majors a few times and then was going to go to grad school. I was going to spend that spring applying to grad school for Psychology and Counseling and get in the fall. I had already taken my GRE and all of that. Everything was going to be fine.
I had a lot of free time all of a sudden for the first time in my entire life. I didn’t have structure. I didn’t have academics. I didn’t have something due other than a stack of grad school applications. I was free falling. It’s the first time you get to sit with who you are. It’s the first time you get to sit with your shame, grief, loss, anger, and resentment. Anything that I pushed down in my entire childhood, all of a sudden, had all the time in the world. It came out in excruciating anxiety to the fact that I couldn’t be alone.
I remember having the TV and radio on. I would jump in the shower and jump out because I thought that time in the shower would destroy me because I would be all alone in the shower. I was living by myself at the time. When people talk about a cry for help, that is a cry for help. That was not, “I’m ready to die.” That was, “I don’t know how to fix this. I don’t even know whom to talk to you. We don’t go to therapy in my home. We don’t have this. I’m not that child.” It was all of these things that kept me from getting proper treatment, especially during college.
What should a parent or a loved one be looking for if they have their child or someone in their home that they are close to? What are some of the signs or red flags that their loved one is potentially going to commit suicide or attempt at committing suicide?
That’s a difficult question to answer only because many young people and us grownups are good at hiding. We are good at having still great grades or performing in athletics. At the time we are recording this, we are coming off of a string of devastating young female college suicides of high-performing athletes. We are looking at people saying they had great grades. They were all American. They were on these winning sports teams. They had everything going for them. They were fulfilling their scholarship.
We are good at masking and hiding. The thing is that instead of looking for signs, even if you term it annoying that person who says, “We are going to talk about this. We are going to use the word suicide.” Anybody who has a child in school, that school or district has experienced a suicide, even down to the young ones. Don’t be afraid to talk about that.
This is one of my problems. When we look at young people, they can’t see what you and I can see at this point, “Can we talk about it? What would happen if you lost a scholarship? Can we process that as a family? Can we go through that? What would happen if you failed AP English? What would happen if you bombed the SAT? What would happen if that boy broke up with you for your best friend and you saw them at the junior high dance?” You and I know that life is about a string of failures. It’s how we rise back and what we learn from these failures that spur us on to our greatest joy and passion. Young people don’t know that. They can’t see that because they are not ready for it.
We, those of you who are parents, can start to process with them and help them understand that they are not going to go through any of that alone and that they may be worried about disappointment, especially young people too. “What happens if someone spreads a photo of you that was supposed to be private for someone? Can we talk about how mom and/or dad can help you through that? What can we do? What would that look like?”
Odds are they have a friend who’s gone through something. When we look at the suicides with young people, especially with the super young ones, there’s usually something that happens with school or the peer base that has been that straw that breaks the camel’s back. We can nurture them to talk about these things so that they know there’s a safe place to come to. “What happens if you were drinking and you get in a wreck in that car? Can we talk about it? There will be consequences but how do we process that? How do we go through that as a family?”
It’s like, “What’s the worst case?”
I didn’t want to disappoint my parents. We hide things as young people from our parents, our coaches, or whoever it is who’s that authority figure that we respect. We feel we are all alone. When we can’t help problem solve, we don’t think there’s an answer. For those children who are more at risk, meaning they suffer from more anxiety or they worry about how other people think more than others, they are a little bit melancholy.
Maybe they have been treated for depression already. We need to take a look at what some of these triggers are and also the pressure that we are putting on them to be perfect. How are they feeling about how they look in school, their body, and what their body looks like? Especially kids that are in athletics or academics getting into college, once they are in college, what happens if college isn’t for them?
How many attempts did you have? Your first attempt was a cry for help.
I feel like it was a matter of, “I don’t even know what to do here. I’m a young woman, and I need somebody to come help me and fix me.”
Are most attempts cries for help?
I don’t think so. Most attempts are a human being who has no other way in that moment of stopping the pain. When you see progressing attempts and wonder why hasn’t that person succeeded, do they continue to need new attention? It’s not necessarily them you see as someone who is fighting. There are certain triggers in life that will throw you to your knees, and when you try to get up, it punches you out.
Depression robs you of your ability to have a favorite food, flower, or anything.
We had the death of Naomi Judd. This is someone from my childhood. I grew up in Texas. We love the Judds and country music. Some of you may not listen to country music. She was in her 70s. She fought her whole life through bouts of suicidal depression. You can come in and out of that. Not everybody has to go in and out. Some people go through a phase. They recover and may not have any issues until it is part of life. We lose loved ones in life. Sometimes, deep triggers like that can reactivate it. Other than that, it’s something in the past.
You might be like me, where I have phases. I still have to deal with the urge to leave this Earth. I have to work my recovery in a way that is pretty aggressive, and I know that she did too. You look at that and think, “You got that far. You have everything. You are rich, famous, adored, and beautiful. You have the big house, the great daughters, and all of this.” It’s the illness. You know that with addiction. It’s not selective. It’s there.
How old were you at your last attempted suicide?
I was 30.
Would you classify that as a real attempt?
Yeah. The last 2 were 3 months apart. This is what ended me in a coma with life support. This was in the early stages of the internet. I bought a book. I ordered the book, How to Die by Suicide. I don’t think that book is around. I was very serious about understanding what I needed to do. I want to be conscious of people who are triggered to talk about modalities. I want to be careful with people because I know I can get triggered too.
I know there are questions of, “If you tried, wouldn’t you try a different way?” If you wanted to die or end your pain, wouldn’t you try a more violent way?” That’s not necessarily true. It would be a whole other discussion that we could talk about. It’s a little bit more based on data and demographics. The thing is that I was looking at a way that I thought would be the least pain. I had been in enough pain. I also was looking at a way that I thought would work. I had worried about other things messing up and leaving me even in a worse case than I was but still alive.
His name is escaping me but he’s a wonderful speaker. There’s a documentary about him where he jumped off the Golden Gate Bridge. He survived and is out there talking about survival. After he jumped, he knew he had made the wrong decision. He was so fortunate to survive and be able to live this life. I woke up and was devastated that I woke up. That’s where I differ from someone who says, “That was a bad choice. I made the wrong choice.” In a knee-jerk choice, it wasn’t for me.
It was years and years. It was a lifetime of pain, isolation, and the absolute worst pain that I would never wish on anyone. That happens with addiction, too. You would never wish what you have to go through on anybody. I don’t even think there are words to describe the depth of sadness and despair that comes from a long-term major depressive disorder.
It was awful that I woke up. That’s hard for maybe a loved one and scary to hear because there are those feelings of, “How selfish can you be? There are people who are fighting cancer who would love to be alive.” That’s where shame comes in for mental illness. Believe me. I have those thoughts of, “Who am I to be living when someone else who has children or a husband should be living and are succumbing to cancer?” The issue is that this is my life. This is your life. I can be right here.
The reason I talk about this is that I represent millions of people all over the world. We are trying to understand how best to help people who are struggling daily, weekly, monthly, and most often daily to stay alive and upright. No matter how much they may love someone, depression is stronger than that. This illness is stronger than that. The thoughts are stronger than any kind of love you could have.
I knew that I was going to get it right when I woke up. I did everything I needed to do. I got back in with my therapist. I saw my psychiatrist. I got out of the hospital and got on my 72-day hold. That’s the cycle. I did everything. I was the apt patient. I placated everybody that I was in recovery when I knew it was just a matter of time until I had everything I needed to end my life properly. It’s one of those things that is so hard for people to understand.
I will be honest. If I hadn’t gone through it, I would never be able to understand the choice. Having been through the pain, the decades of fighting to exist, and doing everything that you are told to get well, happy, strong, and grateful, and stop being selfish to know that it’s never going to work, that’s the belief. It’s never going to get better.
The last attempt was when my father was out of town. I had moved back home. That was another sense of shame. I was 30 years old. I was living at home because I could not take care of myself. My friends were married. They were having their first babies. They were climbing the corporate ladder. I was someone who had excelled at school, and, all of a sudden, was a complete and utter failure in life. That’s the kindness too that we have to show people who are battling mental illness, “I deserve the respect, kindness, and compassion, including from myself, that someone battling cancer would receive.” I never gave that to myself. I work very hard to give that to myself now.
That one was interesting. I knew that I had it down. I knew I had my formula. I knew what I was doing. The timing and everything were there. I was found unconscious. Lots of things had gone wrong, so I was taken to the hospital. That’s where I was in a coma and put on a breathing machine. They gave me a prognosis guarded, which means we don’t know. It was too late for them to pump a stomach, so they had to let the overdose process and then see how the body can take it. Can it withstand it? Can it live? That’s what happened. I woke up.
At that time, they had me strapped to the bed, which is not something that they do for fun. A lot of times, too, especially when you’ve made an attempt on your life, you are disoriented. You are coming out of a coma. They don’t know your state. If you are still suicidal, they have no idea. There was this reaction when you wake up that you are going to pull the tube out, which can paralyze and kill you, too. You are strapped down. It’s very disorienting to wake up and be on a machine. You are only able to look up and not able to move your hands and legs. It was a horrifying moment in my life. It was one that took a lot of therapy to get through that trauma.
I realize someone reading this is going, “You created that trauma,” but it’s an illness that creates that trauma. No healthy human being who is capable of processing their emotions would choose that. We have to start honoring what it is. It is a choice to end the unbearable pain of not being able to stand up to that pain any longer.
This may have been a question for earlier. What was it like having relationships with people? Did you have good friends? Did you have boyfriends? Were you dating?
You did all that stuff but you essentially faked it?
I was a high-functioning depressive. What is a high-functioning depressive? We have those people with eating disorders, addiction, and all kinds of things that can perform out there. It’s a very lonely experience because you are trying to connect to people and be there for them. It’s not like there weren’t moments of joy in my life. There were moments of laughter. There are things that I enjoyed about life but there were deep, dark pits of low times that would take someone to their knees. There are those voices of, “This is too much. I can’t take it anymore. I can’t do it.”
You have your failed attempt at suicide. You wake up and you are like, “Dammit.”
I grew up in a Catholic school and Christian family. I believed in this male God figure at that time. I want to respect everybody’s beliefs, including my own, in this conversation because it’s an individual thing. I couldn’t move anywhere. I was flat and strapped down. I was like, “God, you win. You are not going to take me.” I was mad at God because I felt, “What kind of God puts someone through this and won’t take them home?” That’s a very tough thing to deal with. I don’t know how you feel but I felt betrayed in my life for having to go through that pain every day. That’s tough.
I had made the decision because I was worried at that time. I thought, “I’m only 30. My body clearly is strong enough to withstand these.” I felt, for sure, laying on that bed, that God was not going to intervene. If I tried again, no matter what I did, because I really made sure that what I did would kill me, I would survive again but it would do irreparable damage to my body in some way.
Saying no can allow you to remain in a state that is healthy for you.
When you come out of a coma, they induce it with dopamine to let your body go through an overdose. You are a little bit hallucinating. You are not thinking as clearly. I thought, “I could lose an organ. I could lose my ability to go to the bathroom. I would have to wear a colonoscopy bag. I could lose my ability to walk.” There were all these things that went through my head of, “I can make this so much worse, and I’m still going to have to live because the God that I believed in was going to keep me on this Earth.” We have to hang on to whatever we hang on to.
Looking back, who knows if that was right or wrong? I couldn’t tell you that but I will tell you it was a turning point. I remember laying in that bed, and I made a decision there to say, “No matter what, I’m not going to get married. Who’s going to want me? I’m never going to have that high-powered job to make my parents proud. Who knows if that was what was going to make them proud?” That was in my mind. I said, “But I’m going to live this life no matter how bad it gets. I’m going to stay alive.” That’s the promise I made to myself that day. I still hold myself to that promise.
How did you go from wanting to commit suicide and being pissed that it didn’t work to helping people? That’s what you are doing. Your purpose is to help people overcome ongoing destructive thoughts and increase their self-worth. How did you go from point A to point B?
It was a long road. I would say to anyone where I was then. Even after spending several weeks in the hospital, I was still getting thrown into a psych hold. Those were the laws. It’s all about lawsuits. This October 2022 would be eighteen years. I still can’t believe it has been eighteen years. Those first few years were baby steps. It was such baby steps of not even leaving the house for so long.
Did you still live with your parents at that time?
Yeah. I could not function and be able to work. I was so fragile and unwell. I had blood clots in both my lungs, which were very serious issues that could turn deadly. Coming back from that, I remember it was two minutes on a little recumbent treadmill we had in our home. Two minutes was my prescription. It took everything in me to do two minutes. Everything is gone. Leading up to those last two attempts, I was in bed for a year in a dark bedroom in my parents’ house. I was unrecognizable as a human. Everything that I had was atrophied.
I’m working up to ten minutes. I’m a huge believer in exercise. I know that you are too. I love the book, Spark by John Ratey. That was so ahead of its time with what exercise can do for our mental health. It’s one component but that was a big piece. I was starting on that recumbent bike and knowing that I had to. It was prescribed because I had these ticking time bombs. For someone else, they might say, “Who cares? You want to die anyways.” That’s another piece that is a whole different nuanced conversation about why people choose the method of suicide and what it means.
I was terrified of these clots in my lungs, so I listened to my doctor. I took it easy but did the prescribed exercise. I got past ten minutes, and then I needed more. I started researching a little bit and reading about high-intensity and interval training. It was 9 minutes of soft riding and 1 minute of hardcore riding. I had no idea that what they were doing was repairing the neural connections, the way that my nervous system functioned, and my heart.
We know about all of those good things that physical exercise does for us but as far as our mental health, what exercise can do. I don’t know if you remember but at that time, Sudoku puzzles were all the wave back then. I was getting bored. We didn’t have Netflix or anything like that. You turn on the TV, and if you even have cable, you never know if anything is on. I started to spend an hour on that bike.
On that note, I’m super into health and fitness. It’s not just physical. It’s all of it. It’s physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual. One of my friends’ name is Tom. He never worked out for over a decade. He started going over to F45 and going two days a week. The next thing you know, he’s going six days a week.
I remember him coming to me and saying, “I know I’m not supposed to work out every day. I’m supposed to give myself one day off but do you think I could go every day?” He said that the day he doesn’t go, he is mentally and emotionally spun out. I’m like, “You can go every day. Don’t go all out every day. You got to scale it back a couple of days.” It’s not just about physical fitness. It’s emotional, spiritual, and mental. It’s all of it. There’s so much more to it than the physical aspect.
Whether you feel athletic or not, it has to be a part of a human being’s life, at least that’s my opinion and my experience with myself. I got this clipboard. I printed out jumbo Sudoku puzzles. I needed them big because I was riding the recumbent. I had this pencil and was doing them. I didn’t realize that was also helping me start to problem solve and think again. Here I was feeling these natural inclinations, and all of these things started to stack. I didn’t stack them at once. I didn’t go with this whole plan of recovery. I didn’t think that anything was going to become of my life.
My parents and I were looking at group homes for me. They are not like the recovery homes that you have. We are talking about long-term group homes for people. At that time, if you were on a disability check, you could take a disability check and turn it over to a group home for adults who can’t live by themselves forever. That’s what we were looking at, which was horrifying to me because that was never going to be my life. I was lucky enough to be able to live at home with my parents. Not everybody is. Not everybody has that relationship. It wasn’t fun for them and me, but I’m grateful that they put a roof over my head.
I had this big CD player over by my bathroom. I was sometimes a little bit of a nerd with language. I love writing. It was a vocabulary builder. It was how to learn hard words. I had a lot of trouble with my short-term memory. I was dough from a lot of medications. A lot of things from the trauma and depression will take your short-term memory. I had to utilize a lot of different things. I couldn’t remember if someone had called unless I left a voicemail. This was when we still had regular phones. I had no idea if I had called someone back, so I made a lot of notes.
I started to learn these large SAT words and practice them. I started to get curious about them but I never explored more than that. I never read it more than that to say, “What’s the next thing?” I never put pressure on myself. That was part of it. There was a point where I was ready to walk outside. This was a person that did not go outside for a year.
I put on a massive amount of weight from being on antipsychotic drugs. The reason I was on anti-psychotic medication was that I had been suicidal for so long. Many different treatment forms didn’t work. It was getting to the point where the treatment team was concerned I was going to lose my life. Sometimes, especially back then, that was used to keep me asleep as long as possible while we tried to figure out, “How am I going to grow through this? How am I going to move through and survive this?” The less I was awake, the less chance I had of ending my life. Some people and I’m one of them, gain an inordinate amount of weight on a certain class of drug. Other people don’t.
At that time, I wouldn’t put on my contacts. I wouldn’t get my hair done. I wouldn’t even do my hair. I would only go through my bathroom vanity back to the shower and bathroom in the dark. It had some sunlight coming through but a lot of that was because all I saw in the mirror was a monster. I was completely unrecognizable. I knew if I had to put my contacts in, I would have to look at my face. I stopped all of that. I stopped even having lights on. I took a shower with some sunlight. As you progress with mental illness, these are things that stack on. They take a firm hold on your self-esteem, self-worth, and ability to love yourself and even think you could get healthy.
All of a sudden, I started putting my contacts in. I knew it was a big deal because if I was putting my contacts in, that meant I was turning on the light, which meant I was looking at myself, and the exercise was making me feel better. I wasn’t out in any bikinis at that time but exercise will do that to you. I don’t even have to go back and forth. All of a sudden, there was a boost. I started to say, “I’m going to go outside.”
We lived in a suburb of Houston that had all these trails and forests. I was a runner. I was an athlete. I was like, “I’m going to get back. I’m going to start walking. Maybe I could run again.” I would go out and walk through the forest. My therapist at the time, Roxanna, was saying, “Do you meditate?” I was like, “No. We are not meditating. I’m not going to be alone with the voices in my head. There is no way.” It was the Walkman time, and then we switched to iPod. It was a matter of getting guided meditations. Someone else’s voice was in my head.
I would walk up and down Lake Houston with the meditation and then walk back. That progressed into a walk and run, into running, and then into running in rain and mud storms. It’s Houston. That’s what we do. Coming home after you do a mud run, you feel like a warrior. You feel good and strong. I started losing weight and putting on muscle.
I started remembering more, having moments of happiness, and doing sauna. We didn’t have biohacking. We do cold plunges. I know you are a huge fan of cold plunges. I don’t know how you do it. I’m not there yet, but I’m working on it.
We will have to go some time.
Everybody who cold plunges says, “We will go together.”
It’s not how you feel during. It’s how you feel after.
Understand that what can come of your life is worth any amount of continuing challenge that you may or may not have.
These are things that someone might be reading and saying, “You were lucky because you didn’t have to work. I still had kids that I had to recover with. I had to go to work.”
I was lucky because I could take the time to live with mom and dad, not go to work, and focus 100% on recovery. Without that, I don’t know if I would have survived. People survive. People recover while still paying their own bills and taking care of children. I don’t have children. Maybe they are taking care of an older parent. This was my journey, and those were things that I stacked to start to come back.
To finish this part of that story, this was progressing over a year. It was a slow progression. My father had retired. My mother was a teacher. She refused to retire until my father learned how to be retired without her. He was retired, and I was recovering from all of this. It was tense. I didn’t drive at that time. There were a lot of things going on, so he would drive me to appointments. Other than that, I was at home and then out exercising.
I had gotten an IKEA catalog. I loved the IKEA catalogs. At the back, there was artwork and large-scale photography. I saw tulips, and the thing is, tulips are my favorite flower. I remember my therapist trying during that recovery time. She was like, “When you are walking through the forest, what do you feel with the flowers?” I was like, “I don’t feel anything.” Depression robs you of your ability to have a favorite. I didn’t have a favorite food anymore. I didn’t have a favorite flower. Those things have to come back, and they do come back. Your love for your children will be robbed from you temporarily. When you have that severe depression, it takes everything away from you.
I remember her gently prodding me throughout the year with, “What are you feeling?” I was like, “I noticed the flowers now. I still don’t have a favorite. I’m still not happy about them but I noticed them.” In that IKEA catalog and saw the tulips, I felt my favorite flower. I cannot explain it to you. It’s the little things that you know you are coming back. I knew I was back because I had a favorite again.
When you are depressed and suicidal, you have no more favorites. Everything is gone. IKEA was on the opposite side of Houston, and Houston is huge. A normal person probably would have asked a parent to drive them on the highways down to IKEA. I went the next morning. I got up, got in the car, and drove on the highway. I drove all the way to IKEA so I could get there right when it opened because there was no way I could do an IKEA with all the people in it, and I did.
I walked as fast as I could. They force you to go upstairs, to the back, and then down. I went all the way to the back where the art was. I grabbed it, and then power walked it out to the checkout. I checked out and power walked all to my car. I put it in the trunk and sat in my car. I remember gripping the steering wheel, and the tears came. I thought, “I did it. I am back. I am coming back.”
It was the first time that I knew that I would be okay because I could feel it again. I knew if I could feel again that I could have a life. It wasn’t about, “I’m going to make this great life. I’m going to get married and fall in love.” I couldn’t see that far from there. I was nowhere near there but I knew I was going to be able to feel happiness and joy. I didn’t know any more than that.
How long was that from your most recent suicide attempt?
That was a good year.
That makes sense because in the first year, whether it’s drugs, alcohol or suicide, it doesn’t matter what it is. You have to work your ass off for a year. That’s the first milestone. The next milestone is five years, right?
Yeah. I found it to be touch-and-go after that.
When did you decide that you wanted to help others? When did you decide you wanted to carry the message?
Other people continued to tell me. I am fine just reading books, writing, painting, and going out on hikes. I never wanted attention. I didn’t want anyone to know. I was so embarrassed about what had happened to me. I was concerned that no guy was going to marry me. I was 32 or 33. I remember when I moved to Arizona. That was huge for me to make that move. I was like, “No one can ever know because I might not get a job if I go back to corporate,” which was very true. I was like, “Who would promote me with all of this history?” It was very true at that time.
I was young. I also was early in the recovery area, where I didn’t understand that this was who I was. It’s what makes me incredibly challenging but also incredibly wonderful. It acts as a filter for me so that I don’t have to do a lot of vetting of people or organizations. If they don’t want to date me or work with me, it’s cool. You saved me a lot of time and heartache.” I can appreciate it.
We were about to go through that huge recession. I was doing a part-time job. One of my best friends lives here where I got my feet underneath me. I was thinking about what I wanted to do full-time. I was like, “I would love to do something where I could work online.” I was good at technical things, so I created a website around the brain.
It did not create anything around mental health because I didn’t want it tied back to my story. I wanted to stay in what I was interested in, which was brain health and brain fitness but I did not want to be that face. I didn’t want to talk about what had happened to me. I wanted to get on with life and live a quiet life that was private.
I got good online and created a network of websites. They all revolved around the brain. The people close to me and colleagues who knew my story would remind me that the difference in the extreme level of what I had, including waking up and not being happy, was that I was alive. I was still struggling with suicidal thoughts. I was still having to manage an illness that chases me and be able to figuring out, “How I’m going to live life? How am I go after things that I want, make that work, and also take my failures and stay standing upright?” These were things that there would be people who would want to know how I was doing.
It was still years after when I finally wrote a newsletter to a list that was used to hearing about me as an organizer. I brought all kinds of experts to talk to them, and great neuro products, supplements, neurotechnology, and cool things were happening. I started to write about mental illness and my story. From there, it was a flood of emails, messages, and replies. People would find me on social media and talk to me about their family members or what they are going through.
I realized that it would probably be wise for me to share for the sake of someone who is going through it and feeling like, “I didn’t wake up and was grateful to be alive. I didn’t kick it, and everything is great. That’s behind me. I’m still going through it. I don’t understand why I can’t stop feeling like this. People think I’m selfish. I can’t feel love for my kids.” I understand the shame that they feel in those extreme cases. That’s where it came from. It came from outside, and realizing that as hard as it is to talk about some of those things, what I can do with my life is reach someone who is struggling to stay alive.
That planning to end my life to say, “Look at what I’m doing. I am not all cured and all things great. I am still going through this life. I have to manage these thoughts and tendencies but I also live a life where I get to meet people like you. I get to paint and go to an art show. I get to have a poetry book, hike, and work from home.” That was my dream as an introverted person.
I also know that even eighteen years out this October 2022, someone might say, “How are you still dealing with this?” It’s because some of us do. It’s not all of us. Some people will not struggle at eighteen years out but I do. I’m going to continue to talk about it so that person who was me, who was all alone, and planning, “Today is the last day,” might not have to have today be the last day. They might come and live this life with me.
How does carrying the message help you?
It’s interesting. I don’t know if this is how it is for you but I always feel better when I’m helping people. That is something I have to pay a lot of attention to. Those of us who have dealt with challenges like this can do so much good for other people. We must remember to do that good for us and that we were worth doing that good and taking care of ourselves. I know that it’s how I feel useful in this world. It’s how I build joy into my life and purpose.
Every night, when I’m ending the day, I think to myself, “What did you do today for yourself?” It’s a mirror of how I help others. I have to have an honest conversation with myself, “How are you helping yourself? How are you loving yourself? What happened today that you would never let happen to someone else?” For me, it’s a continuation of my recovery.
It’s carrying the message. When you carry the message, that’s what leads to fulfillment. What we are all after is fulfillment. We want a big house, a fancy car, and diamond earrings. We want these things because we think that’s going to bring fulfillment but what brings fulfillment is by being of service and helping another person.
For me, carrying the message of Alcoholics Anonymous and helping another person that is struggling helps me. It continues building my foundation. What I’m hearing you say is it’s the same thing for you. It continues to help you stay on your path. You are an example, too. You are a public figure. You’ve helped so many people that you are an example. There’s way more accountability for you.
I have created some public accountability. Don’t think that doesn’t play into some of the rougher nights. That is a thought that goes through my mind, “How many people would I be letting down?” I’m at a place where I can have that thought. Years back, I couldn’t handle that amount of pressure but that pressure is a good pressure for me.
Do you still struggle with suicidal ideations?
Yes. It’s ongoing for me to work on boundaries and saying no. I need a tattoo that says, “Erin, you’ve got to say no.” Part of my recovery for the rest of my life is understanding the need to please people, get approval, and not disappoint people. Saying no allows me to remain in a state that is healthy for me. I’m cautious about what I say yes to and then watch.
When I say yes and something gets out of alignment and I can tell I will have a fast, rapid weight gain, that is an instant for me to say, “You have said yes to something that is not healthy for you. We are going to complete this. We are going to remove ourselves and learn from it. We are going to get our health and sleep back in order.” What will happen is it will spiral out of control, where I’m so stressed out from things that I’m exhausted, then I’m punishing myself mentally. It rolls into escapism, which is suicidal ideation completely. It’s that old urge to say, “I can’t do it.” It’s talking myself back and doing a lot of calming the nervous system.
Pushing myself to be around people who have well-adjusted nervous systems, so there’s that co-regulation is a huge thing. Isolation is a killer for people who have suicidal ideation. We must force ourselves to be around people who are calm and in a place of peace so that we can feel that with our bodies. Honestly, I get frustrated sometimes that I’m still dealing with it. It’s a warning sign for me to look back and say, “What are the choices that I have been making to get to a point where I cannot handle everything I’ve taken on, and I’ve put my health at this type of risk? Let’s go through and clean it up.”
You are not alone in saying yes to too many things. Derek Sivers spoke at the event that we went to. The book he wrote was Hell Yeah or No. That resonates with me. I think about that like, “Is this a hell yes? If it’s not a hell yes, then the answer is no.” If I say yes to things that are like, “I can probably do that,” then the next thing you know, I don’t have the capacity to say yes to the things that are a hell yes. I’m like, “Let me scale it back here and only say yes to the things that I’m really fired up over.” I still say yes to things that I shouldn’t say yes to but I’m learning. I’m way more aware of it. I can tell you that much.
It’s honoring the awareness. Something, too, is practicing being kind to myself. I was such an overachiever as a child that if it wasn’t this moonshot, then it wasn’t anything to be proud of. I’m working from home like someone else is out on a yacht. I don’t need to be on that yacht because that’s not me. I’m like, “I’m out with the snakes. You are out in Greece. I’m good. I know what I want.”
Sometimes, we have to say yes to things because it’s part of being an adult and paying our bills. Over-committing and then also learning how to disappoint people has been huge for me. The fear of disappointing people will lead me to harm myself to please them when it didn’t even end up being that they needed me to please them. They would have never wanted me to say yes if they knew it put me in harm’s way. Those are things to understand where I am in that.
It’s because I can do something so quickly and fast, and I’m good at dazzling people, saying yes to please them, and them not even understanding what went down in the background and what almost happened to me physically and mentally in the background is unhealthy. That’s an addictive cycle. Those are things that have popped up over the past few years.
Since I’ve seen you last, everything other than things like this that I’m called for feels good to me. I’m in my home office. I get to talk to you. You can hear me. Those things, I say yes to. The work that I say yes to and that I say no to are things that, in the future, some of those will be a yes again, but now, I am too off-kilter to be thinking of speaking. The world is opening up again.
There are opportunities to get on a plane and speak. This is somebody’s dream, but for me, it’s harmful to my health. Those offers are a no until I feel healthy enough to be back out there. You got to let it go. It’s that fear of missing out. I’m like, “Will they ask me next year? Will they be mad?” All the things that we say to ourselves are a matter of that yes or no. If my body is saying, “I cannot do that right now,” it has to be a no.
We are coming to the end of the interview. Is there a question that you wanted me to ask? If so, what would that question be?
I don’t think that there is. I still remember vividly what I thought would be the last night of my life. I had made peace with that. It had been so long leading up to that night. I remember not having anyone to hang on to, not meaning my mom or dad. I didn’t have anyone who had recovered from something that seemed like I would want to be like them. There was no role model for me. People were not all over the internet talking about mental illness back then. Jane Pauley had come out. She was all over TV and the news at that time because that was a big deal for people to be talking about mental illness on TV.
Even in treatment facilities, they would bring in a patient who had left. Maybe it was a couple of months out or further down the road. They would bring them back in to talk to us but none of them resonated with me. I remember being depressed about it because I would get so excited to have someone who made it. I love before and afters. I love success stories because I hold onto those people.
I remember thinking, “I don’t believe you. Your life isn’t what I want for me.” I would encourage anybody who might have had this conversation sent to them or who’s trying to understand more about themselves. Where I was, I needed to know that someone like me had survived and was okay, not just okay, though, but they had found a way to manage. They managed by doing something that made sense to them and felt good to them.
I’m creative, so I have to live a creative life but that doesn’t mean that’s prescribed for everybody. I hope that if you are reading this, you understand that I’m not going to promise you that you are going to come out of it and it’s never going to come back or you are never going to have the thoughts again, especially if you’re feeling like, “Today’s the day. Tomorrow is the day. Next week is the day.” That life is going to stop for a lot of people. They come through recovery and don’t have suicidal ideations or suicidal thoughts anymore. It’s wonderful but I’m not going to promise you that.
What I’m going to promise you is that you can take a journey where the hardest part has already passed. You have already been through the deepest level of pain that you can go through. Everything from here is about restructuring very slowly, as I did. It was two minutes starting on that old, clunky recumbent bike because that was all I could do in little bits. I had a lot of kindness, compassion, and patience with myself when there was no more patience because I was exhausted.
I’m one of the worst-case scenarios, and I understand that. It’s not a badge of honor because I dislike it. I want it all to go away. I never want to think about it again. I don’t want to ever have those thoughts again. Understanding that I may or may not have those for the rest of my life, making peace with the fact that I can live a life that does have joy and happiness where I have free will, choices, closeness to people, and a reason for being here is still worth any struggle that I may still have with my mental health. In having that struggle, I am able to find an even deeper purpose in my life.
I remember going to bed that night and was certain that ending my life would make my parent’s life easier. It would make my dog’s life easier. It would make my friends’ life easier. I knew they would mourn. I understood that I would be hurting people but also felt I was such a burden, especially being 30, living at home, and unable to produce as an adult. I would be helping everyone because I was too expensive to afford. Healthcare was too expensive to afford.
My mind kept telling me many valid and good reasons to end a struggle. None of that is true. My mind will still try to tell me it’s true sometimes, and that’s the fight. Sometimes, with addiction, too, the mind will still tell you, “One drink won’t hurt this one time,” or whatnot. The thing is that understanding that and the reason for continuing even through the pain when you are exhausted or you don’t have anything left, I hope that something that I have said and in the way that I live my life and still living my life will help you to understand that the work is worth it. What can come of your life is worth any amount of continuing challenge that you may or may not have with struggles, depression, anxiety, trauma, PTSD or if you are dealing with bipolar. All of these things can lead to serious suicidal thoughts.
There’s a guy named Ward. He always says, “It doesn’t matter how you feel. It matters what you do.” This is like AA. It doesn’t matter how you feel. It matters what you do. They’ve got to put in the work. You have to put in the work if you want to stay clean and sober. If you want to get to the root of your issues or a place where you are happy, joyous, and free, stopping the drinking and the drugs are not going to resolve the issue. What’s going to resolve the issue is doing the actual work, which is what I’m hearing you say.
It is work. I can’t speak for you but if I could wave my wand and make it so that it’s not work for all of you who are tired and exhausted, I would take away the work. There are days when I am so tired that I’m like, “This is BS.” I go into victim mode. I’m like, “Why me?” The thing is, we all have something. Some people are missing a leg. Some people are blind. Some people have Type 1 diabetes. Whatever it is that we have, we all have something. This is what we have.
What’s your advice? If you could give 3 bullet points or 3 steps that people can take if they are struggling with ongoing destructive thoughts or suicidal ideations? What are the couple of things that you would say, “These are the things you need to do.”
There are a few things that are easy. They are soft and easy but are ongoing, which I still have to do. One, build awareness of the thought. This is something that I was taught in therapy and never thought would help. When there are thoughts, the more you can catch them, let them be, which if you are in the thick of it, it’s hard to catch them because they are constantly going. I don’t even worry about challenging them at this point.
Be kind to it. It’s like, “There’s the thought.” There’s data to back this up that you can look into. What it does is it helps to bring down our reaction to those thoughts. It helps us to slow those thoughts and to lessen the number of times. We are strengthening all of the brutality that we say to ourselves or the comfort that we are having from suicidal ideation.
The next thing is to look at your nervous system and how over-activated and raw it is. One of the places that I like to go to is YouTube. You can look at parasympathetic nervous system exercises or vagal tone exercises. There will be therapists or coaches on YouTube who have calming exercises for you to do. One of the easiest ones is that we deactivate this over-active thing.
You take a deep breath in, hold for four, purse your lips, and blow out. What we are doing is we are slowing the breath and telling the vagus nerve that we are going to turn from an over-activated state to a calmer state. There are 20, 40 or 50 ways to tell the vagus nerve. That’s why I love YouTube because they will explain it to you. These are things I still have to do. I still have to catch my thoughts every day. I still have to do a number of deactivation exercises. Cold plunges are great for that, too.
The other one is no isolation. This is a biggie. The isolation will kill you. It flat-out will. It will strengthen those thoughts. It will strengthen the grip of any kind of mental illness or addiction. It doesn’t mean we have to get out and go to parties. I used to have this rule. At the beginning of that first year, after I went to IKEA, I was allowed to stay home for three days in a row. That was it. After the third day, I had to leave the house, even if it was getting in my car. I remember all I could do was go to the Starbucks and get a frappuccino through the drive-through but it counted.
Over time, it became two days. This was over a period of years. I listened to you. When you talk about the next five years, it is work. By the time I moved from Texas to Arizona, I still was at a two-day rule. I was like, “If I’m on the second day of staying in bed or staying home and isolating, I have to leave.” It then became one day. I kept doing one day for a long time. I don’t even have that rule anymore because I don’t need it. Isolation will strengthen all of those thoughts and feelings. It gives this illness so much power. It gives suicide much power over you. Those are three things that are easy, free, and ongoing. It’s like brushing your teeth.
Where can people find you? How can people find you if they want to learn more about you or follow you?
My website is ErinMatlock.com. You can search on social media, too. I’m out there but not there every day. If you have questions, you can email me. It’s Erin@ErinMatlock.com. That’s the easiest, most direct way to get ahold of me.
Thanks so much. I truly appreciate you. I got a lot out of this conversation, and I’m sure lots of other people did as well.
I hope so. Thank you for giving me all of this time. I know we went long. Thank you to those of you who stayed with me. This can be a triggering talk. When you are going through this and are suicidal, sometimes, hearing from someone about their history and attempts can be triggering. In America, the National Suicide Prevention hotline is 1-800-273-8255. I want you to know that I have had friends and colleagues who have called suicide hotlines. I want to encourage you that these people are trained. They are there 24 hours a day and are there to talk to you about anything. Reach out to them.
Thank you so much. Have a great rest of your day.
About Erin Matlock
Erin Matlock is an artist, author and advocate who has spent 13 years in leadership in the brain health and mental health markets.
She is a life member of Mensa® and a transformational coach who guides her clients through deeply intense transition and rapid growth in their professional and personal lives.
An international and TEDx speaker, she boldly challenges the stigma of suicide and depression through deeply personal accounts of survival and recovery.
Please join Erin as she translates her viral published poetry to large format canvas through the use of bright acrylic color and sculptural text. Her works are studies on self worth, self acceptance and individuality, and have been received with delightful success.