‘I didn’t see a light’: Hospitalized three times for suicidal thoughts, Paula Jones says she owes her life to ‘people that took my hand when I reached out’
Editor’s note: This story is part of a series of feature stories written in conjunction with the ongoing “Inside Out” community campaign to normalize mental illness. This is the second of a two-part feature on the topic of suicide. The first part, published in the Wednesday, March 20 Tribune, featured a mother who lost her young son to suicide two years ago.
Paula Jones doesn’t remember many of the details of her life from the months that led up to her last hospitalization. It was like she was walking around in a fog that whole time.
“I wasn’t myself, like there was someone else in my body, going through my day,” she says.
Her symptoms of depression, anxiety and PTSD had been intensifying for months, and she was spending more and more time alone, alienating herself from her crucial support network. She was taking her prescribed medications, not realizing that they had lost their effectiveness.
To numb the physical and emotional pain she was in, Jones fell back into some old harmful habits, like drinking and prescription drug abuse. She lost her sense of self, overwhelmed by feelings of shame, hopelessness and self-loathing.
When the drugs and alcohol were no longer enough to dull the pain, her thoughts began to revolve around another way to end it: suicide. It was something she had seriously considered twice before in her life, with the first time dating back more than two decades. Those first two times led to two prior hospitalizations. This most recent time, three years ago, led to her third.
Fortunately, Jones got the help she needed before it was too late. During what was supposed to be a routine med-check appointment, her primary care physician in Detroit Lakes recognized the severity of her symptoms and immediately referred her to a mental health facility in the region, Bridgeway in Fergus Falls, where she spent about a week in inpatient therapy.
On her way there, Jones says, all kinds of destructive thoughts and questions swirled around in her head: “Like, why can’t I get my shit together?... Why can’t I be like normal people? I just felt so sad and angry,” she says.
Diagnosed with severe, recurring depression, generalized anxiety disorder, social anxiety disorder and PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder), Jones believes her mental health disorders stem back to her early childhood.
She was raised in an alcoholic and dysfunctional household in Hackensack, Minn., she says, and was a victim of childhood sexual abuse. She experimented with unhealthy coping mechanisms as she got older, like drugs, alcohol and other risky behaviors, which only made matters worse. Over the years, she’s says she’s been taken advantage of, sexually assaulted, and has survived “multiple abusive relationships.”
Three times over the past 25 years, Jones has fallen into a downward spiral of sorrow. Each of those times, she’s gotten to the point where she was actively planning her suicide, down to the day, place and method. But none of those times, she says, did she really want to die. What she wanted was for the pain to end.
“I believe that most people who are suicidal or have committed suicide don’t really want to die,” she says. “We just want the intense pain to stop.”
“The pain is very real,” she adds. “It’s not just emotional and mental and spiritual, it’s also very physical. It’s a physical pain.”
Jones “thanks God every day for the people that took my hand when I reached out.” Those people, she says, saved her life with their compassion, concern and willingness to act.
The first time, it was a supervisor at the plant she was working at. He somehow sensed that she was struggling, approached her about it, and then drove her to a treatment center himself, right away. If that hadn’t happened, Jones says, she wouldn’t be here today. Her plan had been to end her life that night.
The second time, it was a good friend who intervened, driving from more than an hour away to come and get her and bring her straight to a hospital.
The third time, it was her primary care physician, who recognized her symptoms during that routine med-check and insisted she go to Bridgeway.
“Each of those incidents resulted in inpatient hospitalization,” Jones says. “Those were three very close calls.”
Her first hospitalization, at a facility in St. Cloud, was something of a wake-up call: “That was the beginning of my introduction to mental illness, to recovery work, to identifying trauma, to psychological welfare and the treatment of that, and medications and therapists... which have become pretty much a staple of my life, to this day,” she says.
She moved to Detroit Lakes shortly after that, where she could be closer to some supportive friends and family, and would feel less alone. She “was good for about 10 to 15 years” then, she says, in terms of her mental health management. But she felt so good, for so long, that she thought she didn’t need her medications anymore, and she stopped taking them. She also stopped going to therapy.
It didn’t take long for the old pains, and old bad habits, to kick in again — and envelop her.
“I just felt that there was no way out of this hole, there was no way to make amends for the things that I had done,” she says. “I didn’t see a light.”
She only had the wherewithal to call a friend for help, she says, because of her son. Thinking about him gave her the motivation she needed to extend a hand out of the darkness, and thankfully, her friend grasped that hand tight. Jones went to Prairie St. John’s in Fargo, N.D., that time, where she stayed for 10 days.
After that, she began a new treatment regimen of therapy and medication, and also reestablished her support system within the community. She saved up enough money to purchase her own home, and that’s something she takes pride in. She still lives in that home today, she says, and she loves it. She also scored her “dream job come true” five years ago, at the Detroit Lakes Library, greeting people who come in and helping them find their way around.
“Since kindergarten, the library has been my favorite place,” she says. “Books have always been a refuge; they help you go somewhere else.”
Prior to that, she worked for four years at Solutions Behavioral Healthcare, where she helped develop treatment plans and courses of action for adults in the community who struggle with mental illness. Because of her own experiences, she was able to connect with her clients in a uniquely sympathetic way, she says, helping them understand that they’re not alone.
She was also a part of the Becker County and White Earth Reservation Mental Health Mobile Crisis Response Program during those years, responding to calls from people in their times of need.
“It’s a free phone call, and it’s made a difference for a lot of people,” Jones says of the crisis line, reachable at 218-850-HELP(4357). “It doesn’t matter what your crisis is — if you burned your dinner, if your kid’s feeling mouthy, whatever, you can call the crisis line. You don’t need to be suicidal (though the crisis responders will help in that situation, too).”
Today, Jones finds support and solace in her books, coworkers, faith in God, and some caring friends and family members, along with people she’s met and connected with in her Adult Children of Alcoholics support group meetings. She says those meetings have been incredibly helpful to her. She does some service work at the local Alano Club, as well, and also takes in rescue cats.
She takes prescription medications to manage her symptoms, and has check-ins with her doctor every six months. She’s more mindful today of her tendencies toward anxiety and depressive thinking, and has more tools and knowledge about mental health at her disposal than ever before, she says, and yet her mental health disorders aren’t something she ever really feels “cured from or recovered from.”
“It’s always lurking,” she says of the darkness. “It’s always that turbulence under calm water, that’s always there, that’s always waiting for you to not take your medicine, to not get enough sleep. It’s always waiting there for you… just waiting.”
But, she adds, it helps “knowing that I have support, knowing that I’m not alone, and that there are people that I can turn to.”
The fourth “Inside Out” video, featuring more information about suicide, is available to watch at www.beckercountyenergize.com.
COMMUNITY HEALTH AND WELLNESS SUMMIT TO FOCUS ON THE IMPACT OF CHILDHOOD TRAUMA
Paula Jones believes her mental health problems stem from her dysfunctional and traumatic childhood, a belief that is backed up by research into the negative, lasting effects of Adverse Childhood Experiences.
Studies show that people who have experienced traumatic events or situations as kids, such as abuse or neglect, are at a higher risk of depression, suicide, disease, drug abuse and other health and social problems later in life. And the more Adverse Childhood Experiences, or ACEs, a person has been through, the more at risk they are.
The topic of ACEs, and how they influence a community’s health, well-being, economy and future, will be the focus of this year’s Community Health and Wellness Summit in Detroit Lakes, coming up on Tuesday, April 2. From 4-8 p.m. at Trinity Lutheran Church (at 1401 Madison Avenue), this fourth annual community summit will explore the theme of, “Building a Healthy and Resilient Community.”
Becky Dale, from Minnesota Communities Caring for Children, will discuss the science behind ACEs and talk about how to build a resilient community — one where kids and adults can thrive. Parents, faith leaders, government officials, service providers, community members… everybody is welcome to attend.
Attendees will learn what ACEs look like in Becker County, and will have the opportunity to share some ideas and work toward possible solutions in order to build a healthy and resilient community into the future.
"Inside Out: A Step Inside Mental Illness" is a Detroit Lakes area project to raise awareness of mental illness and erase the stigmas surrounding it. A community partnership between local media and regional healthcare and crisis organizations, the campaign consists of a series of online videos, newspaper articles and radio discussions that shed light on some common mental health disorders, putting local faces to those disorders. Topics covered include depression, PTSD, anxiety, ADHD, suicide and others.
Videos are being released once a week for eight weeks (the campaign started the week of Feb. 25), and are available to watch free on Becker County Energize's website, beckercountyenergize.com. There will also be a program airing each week on lakestv3.com. Newspaper articles are being published in the Wednesday print editions of the Detroit Lakes Tribune over the same time span, as well as on the newspaper's website, www.dl-online.com. Participating radio stations include Leighton Broadcasting's local stations, Wave 104.1 FM, KDLM 1340 AM and 93.1 FM, and KRCQ 102.3 FM.