Early or ongoing trauma does not define you  

Written by Gretchen Parisi

*Disclaimer: the content in this story mentions sexual abuse and suicide. Please refer to the resources at the bottom for helpful information and support.

Jen* has struggled with mental health issues for most of her life. Although she has endured emotional, physical and sexual abuse, parental abandonment, foster care, a suicide attempt and, most recently, the suicide of her young adult child, she is still standing, still fighting, and still inspiring others to overcome their mental health struggles. [*Due to the sensitive nature of early trauma, this individual prefers to remain anonymous.]

"Through my mental health battle, I have come to realize that I have the ability to overcome my past," she says. "I no longer have to be the victim that I was as a child. I can stand strong and be a survivor."

Persevering through a difficult childhood

Jen realized that she was depressed at age 13.

"I developed an eating disorder, began cutting, and began to threaten suicide," she says. "At 14, I spent 30 days in a mental health hospital and loved it there so much that I ran away from home and returned to the hospital because I thought it was better than living life in my home." She could not remain at the hospital (she was allowed to stay for 24 hours), but was able to get a short-term placement at a facility where teenagers could go for 72 hours while staff work with them and their parents so the teens will be more comfortable going home.

Jen attended therapy in an outpatient program, "but it wasn’t helpful, as my parents were great manipulators and made everything out to be me seeking attention and having a skewed perception of the events going on at home." At a group family therapy session her dad and she were talking, "and I was saying I was never allowed to have any emotions or express how I felt about anything. My dad said, 'That's not true – you have no right to feel that way.' Everyone there said to him that he was undermining my feelings right then."

That moment, and Jen's dad leaving her stepmother, was a huge turning point for her, because her stepmother had always told her that she was "not good enough."

At 16, Jen decided "to be the best person I could be." During her freshman year in high school, she reports that her grade point average (GPA) was a 1.3, and in sophomore year, her GPA was 0.7. But after she put her focus back on school, she got a 3.8 GPA in her junior and senior years and took five correspondence courses to graduate on time with her class. 

Suicide attempt in early adulthood

However, Jen's life after high school was not easy.

Years later, as a 26-year-old divorced mother of three, Jen was going to college and taking medication – a selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor (SSRI) – to help with her mood and depression. She felt much better on the medication, but then thought she didn't need it anymore. "I did not know the risks associated with SSRIs or discontinuing it," she says. "I quit taking it without consulting my doctor, and my thoughts quickly became quite dark. I began to feel lower than I had in a long time."

She resumed her SSRI and then repeated the same pattern – going off of it when she felt better. "I can only describe things after that as being black," she says, "I felt that I was at the lowest point I had ever been." When her new boyfriend started pulling away from her, she rounded up different medications she had around the house, looked them up to determine if any of them could be lethal, and wrote a few suicide notes.

When Jen didn’t pick up her kids from their father, and he learned that she had not gone to work or called daycare, he sent the police to her home. "I was found unconscious on my living room floor. I spent two days on life support, followed by a stay in the psychiatric ward," she says. After that suicide attempt, Jen's dad apologized to her for what she had gone through.

"That was my last suicide attempt, but many days are still a struggle," she says.

Living through the pain

Things are particularly challenging right now, following her child's recent suicide.

"Make sure you listen to your children, notice if they are withdrawn, tell them it's okay to seek help or be on medication," Jen advises. "I battle the desire to be with that child, but I know that I still have other children here living that need me more. That is what keeps me going each day."

She offers the following advice to those who want to support friends or family who have lost a loved one to suicide: "Be there for them and let them know you are around if they need you. Understand that there is no timeline for wanting to talk, no timeline for getting over this loss. Encourage them to attend support groups, including those offered through Mayo Clinic."

Staying strong

Despite her past struggles and setbacks, Jen soldiers on.

"While my life experiences have made me who I am today, I no longer am defined by those events," she says. "I have learned that living each day of my life with purpose is much more important than sinking back into that place of darkness."

Jen is living proof that it is possible, even if you have experienced trauma, to take your life back. "You can use your pain to drive you. You can do anything you put your mind to," she says. "No matter what anyone else says or thinks or anything that happens – you are worth it, and you are deserving of happiness and life. There is help out there and people should not be afraid to seek that help."

Most importantly, Jen says, "Do not give up on yourself."


Lend an EAR.  A five-minute trainingmoduleto learn how to better support each other in the workplace.

Crisis Resources:

The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline -  988

The Veterans Crisis Line and Military Crisis Line – 988 (Press 1)

Crisis Text Line – Text HELLO to 741741

Additional Resources:

Mental Health and Well-Being Website:  https://mentalhealthandwellbeing.mayo.edu/

Mayo Clinic Learner Resources:  http://intranet.mayo.edu/charlie/student-services/well-being/emotional/ 

Employee Assistance Program

RST: 507-266-3330 or http://intranet.mayo.edu/charlie/employee-assistance-rst/ 

AZ, FLA, MCHS, remote:  Vital Work Life: 1-800-383-1908 or www.VITALWorkLife.com

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Article on Surviving a Child’s Suicide

In order to bring your best self to work or school each day, it is pertinent that you nurture your mental health. Let’s foster a culture at Mayo Clinic that encourages transparency and accountability with each other. We cannot consistently put the needs of the patient first if we do not address our own needs in these ways and support our colleagues to do the same. It’s ok to not be ok.