Talking About Suicide

Talking with Patty Overland

 December 7, 2011

During our chat last month, Kristina Yates told me to speak with a friend of hers in California. She’s in a wheelchair from her suicide attempt and she’ll tell anyone about it, Kristina said. But that openness didn’t come right away. Patty Overland lives in the Bay Area and is a co-founder of Wry Crips, a performance group for disabled women.

I’m manic depressive. I had one manic episode when I was 17, when I was hospitalized in New York City and electroshocked there. I finished high school and went a year to Fordham. But I went to a Jewish girls’ summer camp _ I was raised Catholic _ and at camp I had my second manic episode. I told one of the girls I had been in a psych hospital, and some of them teased me, they were kind of mean. So then I went home. I had decided to study physical education at a community college upstate, but then I just didn’t feel like it. I came home to Staten Island. I was just getting more and more depressed. I was looking for work, but I couldn’t keep up with the math, even though I was a good student and good at math. You know, it’s not a question of how smart you are.

I started slashing my wrists. The doctor said to go to the psych ward in Staten Island. I was there for a couple of weeks. I met a couple of young people I liked. When I went home, I was depressed again. Then in November I went to visit friends in the Bronx, but I had the feeling that something not good was going to happen there. Something was wrong with me. One friend said I was like a ghost of who I used to be. I got drunk and I was like a wild animal. I smashed my hand through glass, and she called my parents to come get me.

I didn’t know, but I made a leap out of the fourth-floor window. I woke up in the hospital, surrounded by people in white. I thought they were angels.

I shattered the bottom of my spine. For the first month, it was a good thing that no one put any weapons by my bed, because I was not a happy camper. They kept putting older dying women on either side of me. Finally they put a younger African-American woman who had a broken pelvis and a nice smile. It was good to be next to someone my own age.

So I went to a rehab hospital in Manhattan. I did a lot of physical therapy. This December, it will be 39 years.

I knew I wanted to get back to school. I had met a woman in rehab who’d been at Cal-Berkeley, and I had kind of followed her out and became a student there. But then I had another nervous breakdown. I ended up being hospitalized for six months. I ended up going back east and being hospitalized again.

(She made her way back to California and started seeing other women.)

I’m in terrible physical condition now. In 1982 I had a secondary condition, which from the base of my spine to my brain started to form a cyst along my spinal cord, to lose sensation. Before then, I was a pretty good partial paraplegic.

I was seeing a nurse who took me as I was. She was also a suicide survivor. She had made a very serious attempt in her 20s. What was weird about her story was that her father was a doctor and he didn’t want the ambulance to go to the hospital where he worked because he didn’t want to be embarrassed in front of his colleagues.

(She also had a friend, Karen, who jumped off the Golden Gate Bridge.)

When do you just let it go? She’s been out of her demons for 24 years.

What about yours?

That’s a really good question. I don’t even know. I have music, I have support group on Monday nights, I’m in one-on-one therapy since 1996. I’m 58 now.

I try to keep friendships strong. I was going to say my strongest relationships are with other crip women, but there are other relationships. There’s also a disabled lesbian project here in the Bay Area.

In retrospect, if I had just waited for my parents to come to the Bronx to get me … But there are a lot of what ifs. I was looking to check out at the time. Now, two of my friends have killed themselves. I know what it does to friends. But me, I don’t even know what happened. I vaguely remember running toward the window.

When people ask, “Why are you in a wheelchair?” I just tell them the truth. I decided to be more honest after Karen jumped. What am I supposed to do? I can’t get away from it. The water off the Pacific coast always looks red to me now. My sister once told me she picked one of the most famous places to kill herself. What is that supposed to mean to me?

How much have we heard the word “suicide”? Suicide bombers … So much, that word.

What does it do to you?

It makes me kind of go inside of it a lot and a lot, then, “OK, time to take my medicine.” I just take my medicine. Now I have a lot of chronic pain and numbness.

Look, here’s the thing. If I had just waited for my parents, I wouldn’t be as fucking disabled as I am. But I’ve done some good things too. Coaching wheelchair basketball, acting. But in terms of how bad my body feels on a bad day, I try to keep my spirits up.

What were you telling people before when they asked about your wheelchair?

Oh, just a car accident. So they wouldn’t be nosier. Because now, people then ask, “Why did you do that?” So sometimes people kind of want to get in your business. “Why? Why would you want to take away your own life?”

When they ask, what do you say? Do you deflect the question?

It depends on who’s asking and on what kind of mood I’m in.

Should people be talking about suicide, and in what way?

I think they should talk. It never ceases to amaze me how many people this is an issue for. It seems that a lot of people have gone through it at some period in their life. In fact, I was at a butch lesbian conference and I was eating lunch with a young African-American woman and I broached the topic, and it turned out that she was a cutter. You never know. I was working with an Orthodox Jewish man in a nursing home, teaching exercise to people, and one time after class he said, “Aha, you made yourself a crip. I was born this way.” He was just making fun of me. He was very mean. I said, “Jonah, fuck you. It’s just what happened.”

There does need to be some discussion about it, and I think people do need to feel like there’s some help, but I also feel some really want to do it and are gonna do it. My friends, they really wanted to be out of their emotional pain.

Sometimes people … I don’t know. It’s an ongoing and open-ended discussion.

I’ve even joked. I know someone who works in a psych ward in Berkeley. She said the guy she was seeing said there had been a suicide on the floor. I said, “Oh, one less of us to worry about.” Sometimes I feel that cold about it.

I don’t even know what to do with my sadness, about that stuff. Because I’m in my late 50s. Life is finite.

You’ve mentioned others who have killed themselves. How to prevent it?

I’m not a therapist. I’m just trying to keep myself jacked up.

Does it help in any way to be open about it?

Just the truth. Sometimes my body just feels like razor blades and broken glass and barbed wire. I’m getting older, and I should bring some softness in. But I don’t want to not tell the truth anymore.

But other people hide it.

They do. They don’t want to say.

I met a woman once who thought it was a cool thing, being a survivor. It is a cool thing, because the other scenario was I could have died. I’m not saying it’s a cool thing to jump out a window.

I was fighting with a woman once. She said, “No religion would take you because of what you did.” I was raised Catholic, but I would say I’m culturally Jewish. On a bad day, I’m not sure I believe in any god at all. But that this friend would say that … I’m not looking for acceptance into a religion because of my attempt. Suicide is against life, I know that. I’m not looking for acceptance.

What else should we know about you? How do you describe yourself?

I have a first name, Patty. A last one, Overland, like travel. I am myself, you know? I’m known to other crips in the community. Also, I’ve done a lot of work in the blind community as a reader. And I was teaching expressive art in a drug rehab center in Oakland. Yeah, I’m myself. A lesbian. Mostly proud, though not in a relationship in a long time. Sometimes that’s hard. Because I’m not getting any younger, and my body’s not in good health.

I’m Irish, I’m Norwegian. Those are hard-headed ethnicities. The Irishness, sometimes that’s soulful, but sometimes they get too deep into it and get lost there. But it’s just what it is.

I forgot to ask. What’s been your favorite answer to your explanation about being in a wheelchair?

My ex-lover Nancy, she has this younger sister. She was with this guy, and we were going to the Santa Cruz boardwalk. I said something about being a suicide survivor, and then he said, ‘So am I.’

When Jeff did that … I think what happened is he might have asked beforehand, ‘How did Patty get in a wheelchair?’ The way he just said it, just like this very open way. You know. He was this young tattooed guy. It was a very sweet thing.

We didn’t really compare notes. It felt like it would’ve been invasive in that situation for either of us.

You just never know.