This is the second in a two-part series interview with artist, gallery owner, and former Marine Katie Neeley. To read part one, click here.
“Welcome to the Albuquerque New Mexico VA Medical Center. If you are having a medical or mental health emergency, hang up and dial 911. If you are having thoughts of suicide, press 7 now to be connected with the veteran’s crisis line, or you may call 1-800-273-8255, then press 1.”
Katie presses the “End Call” button on her iPhone. “So anytime you call the VA Hospital, for any reason, you have to listen that,” she says. “It drives people nuts. But there is a reason for it.”
Katie used to call the suicide hotline more times than she can count. She knew she needed help, but didn’t know how to ask for it or where to turn.
Her roommate was the one who told her “I think you have PTSD. You need to go to the VA Hospital and get diagnosed.” Katie’s path, however, to getting the diagnosis that would eventually get her the help she needed was not direct or easy.
With PTSD, it wasn’t just the hyper-vigilance and overreactions to the sound of whistling or a car alarm. It was also the flashbacks, anxiety, inability to handle crowds. She couldn’t hold a job as a result, which added the financial worry of how was she going to make rent. There was the depression, another common symptom of PTSD.
“Part of the problem when you have depression is you keep asking yourself why am I depressed? When you’re asking yourself why am I depressed you’re looking for answers and when you’re looking for answers you’re thinking about every possible thing that could be making you depressed.”
Also, when Katie did call the crisis line, she would often feel guilty. “They should be talking to somebody else, they should be talking to somebody who really needs help. I don’t really need help. I didn’t get any arms blown off. I didn’t watch somebody got shot right before my eyes. There are other veterans who need help more than I do.”
Ironically, she called the suicide hotline the day she attempted her own suicide. As part of the standard protocol, the counselor asked her, “Are you having suicidal thoughts?”
But Katie didn’t realize she was feeling as bad as she was. This was also one of the instances where she felt like she was wasting someone else’s time. She said she was fine and hung up.
On New Year’s Eve, prior to the day of her suicide attempt, Katie tried to finalize her will. “I was at a Dunkin’ Donuts, asking the people who worked there for signatures.” The lie she told them was that the VA Hospital needed a will for their records, and the reason she wasn’t asking somebody close to her to sign was because “they’re in the will and it would just be too weird.”
The clerks looked at Katie like it was still just too weird.
Also at the Dunkin’ Donuts that night was—you guessed it—a police officer. He’d overheard everything and came over to Katie. “You know,” he said, “It’s not going to matter without a notary.”
After hearing that, Katie decided to just add an explanatory note to her last will and testament: “I’d make this official but I don’t have time for that.”
She listed her belongings and to whom she wanted everything to go.
So The Pain Doesn’t Last Long
“I’m a donor. Apologies for the mess,” read the sign Katie made for herself.
“There are people who need to live more than I do,” was her thinking. “If I just get me out of the way, they can take my organs and they can put them in somebody else.”
To ensure that nobody would catch on to her intentions, she made her purchases at separate places. At one store she bought a bottle of liquor. At another store she bought a bottle of acetaminophen.
“I love you all so much,” she wrote in her note to her friends. “I hope you don’t think that I don’t love you . . . . I’m doing this because I’m in pain and I don’t want to be in pain anymore.”
Into her mailbox she put her note, her un-notarized will, and the keys to her car she intended to leave for her friend.
She swallowed half the acetaminophen pills and dissolved the rest with the liquor to take later. She packed her bottle of poison cocktail, her handmade donor sign, and a blanket into her backpack, then threw on a jacket. Leaving her apartment for what she intended to be the last time, she went out into the cold winter night. And started walking.
To the VA Hospital.
“When I tell people this story, they’re like, ‘Obviously, you wanted help.’ I’m like, ‘No, I wanted them to get my organs intact.’”
Singing in the Dark
The acetaminophen, and her fast pace, kept her warm.
“I was so happy on that walk. After I swallowed all those pills I was immediately happy. I was like, ‘I figured it all out. This is it. I don’t need to worry about anything. All my problems are solved.’ That’s how it felt. I felt like a solution had been reached and it was the pinnacle of my life. I was so happy. I hadn’t been that happy since . . . [a major bad guy in Game of Thrones] died. I was singing. I was like a cartoon character. I was singing and walking and prancing. I was so freaking happy.”
By the time she got to the grounds of the VA hospital, she felt victorious. It was the middle of the night and no one was around, but she was ready to execute her plan. She sat down on the cold cement and pulled her blanket around herself, put on her sign, and took out the bottle of liquor with the dissolved pills. She started drinking.
“As time passes I’m feeling kind of cold, I’m waiting for the effects, I’m waiting to pass out. I’m really getting anxious. I’m really waiting to pass out, and as I’m sitting there I start having flashbacks. And when I sat there and started having flashbacks, I lost it. I went from being so happy to. . . . I just need to be dead. I don’t want to be alive anymore.”
There had to be somebody on the facility with a weapon. She’d find them and demand they take care of this situation. She got up and started running around, screaming for help, banging on windows. Somebody with a gun had to respond.
Finally, a security guard approached her.
“You need to shoot me,” Katie told him.
To which he replied, “Honey, what did you take?”
The guard called the VA Hospital. When the medics arrived they treated her with NAC, an antidote for acetaminophen poisoning. They told her she was lucky to have survived.
Then they sent her to the psych ward.
She was there for nine days.
The Magic of Words
It turned out to be a good thing.
Katie finally received the medication and the counseling she needed.
The thing that helped her the most, though, was getting past her fear of male service members, a fear that had come out of an experience she’d had when she enlisted. She felt as if they were the threat. “My fellow Marines especially—they’re the enemy.” She’d been feeling that way for years and was now at the point where she needed to conquer it.
“It was really cold in my room, and I heard this beautiful music coming from outside. I was so cold and I really wanted to get close to that music.” She ventured out into the common area and saw two fellow servicemen who were also in the psych ward and were playing guitar. Katie sat down on the floor in front of them, huddled and shaking from withdrawals. But she needed to be near them, near the music. After they finished playing, the two men asked if anybody else wanted to play. Katie raised her hand. “I do.”
They started teaching her how to play the guitar. That broke the ice.
The three of them had conversation after conversation. She got comfortable with these guys. Even though she was still getting hit on by other men—she was one of only two women in the psych ward—even though she was still getting unwanted attention, just like in the military, this time she was okay. She had met and bonded with men she was safe around. Katie was officially diagnosed with PTSD and MST—Military Sexual Trauma.
In talking to other veterans during group therapy, she got to talk about stuff she’d never been able to talk about before. Before, when she’d try to share her stories with other people, she’d feel guilty about burdening them with her misery. But with her fellow vets, it was different. “You don’t feel better knowing that somebody else has it worse or that somebody else has had it just as bad. That doesn’t make you feel better. If only I could be the only one. If only the world weren’t this full of misery. But it is, and that just makes you feel worse. But what would happen when they would share their experiences was I just felt like somebody could relate. . . . we have a similar compassion for one another. We have empathy for one another. I would acknowledge that they should live. They should go on living. They don’t deserve to be dead. So why do I deserve to be dead?”
When she realized that, she realized she could help others by telling her stories, it gave her a voice. It gave her a reason to talk.
“There is a magic to words. Finding words. When you can articulate an experience and finally find a language for it–I don’t want to say it heals you but it does some of the healing.”
A Reason to Live
After she got out of the psych ward, Katie applied for Veterans’ benefits so she could get covered and afford a steady counselor. Because they backdated the start of her benefits to the first documented instance of PTSD, she received a lump sum payout that was more money than she’d had before in her life.
“I knew I needed a sense of purpose, and that’s where the gallery came in. I thought, ‘I’m going to do something with this money to change my life. And change the lives of others, and have a reason to live.’” She used the funds to fix up her gallery and pay rent.
Her schizophrenia was also diagnosed, helping her to explain some of the bizarre visions she used to have, including the one of her friend Michael from her college days, where she found him after he had hung himself. “That probably didn’t happen. That was probably an episode. It’s probably a schizophrenic dream that I had based on my experiences with Michael. He could be alive and well somewhere right now, I have no idea.”
Getting the proper meds made a huge difference in her ability to function. “It’s scary to be dependent on medication to be okay, but boy, it’s better than being miserable.”
She got into a program at the VA that helps offset her financial difficulties; she is currently considered 70% PTSD and 30% unemployable.
“I am not going to stay unemployable.” Katie’s plan is to succeed at her art business and no longer be eligible for benefits. She needs to change, to have a purpose and that’s what the gallery gives her. If she can help the organizations that advocate for Veterans, such as Heroes Walk Among Us, and other causes, she has a reason to live.
Katie’s long-term goal is get the gallery to be self-sustaining and use proceeds to help others as she has been helped.
“It’s not a mission from God, but it’ll do.”
The current exhibit at the KD Neeley studio, Face Palm Patriots, benefits Heroes Walk Among Us, a non-profit group that helps veterans find jobs, housing, and other resources. It runs through January 5, 2018. Her next exhibit, opening February 2, 2018, will feature the work of artist Monica Dominguez-Reazin, and will benefit the Rape Crisis Center of Central New Mexico.
Suicide Hotline: 1-800-273-8255