About 85 percent of people who attempt suicide with a gun will die. Christen McGinnes, 47, is a statistical exception: On October 22, 2010, she pointed a .357 revolver at her head, and pulled the trigger. Today, 46 surgeries later, she is a volunteer with the Trauma Survivors Network at Inova Fairfax Hospital in Virginia. Here is her story, in her own words, as told to Kerry Shaw of The Trace.
I think of 2009 as the year everything fell apart. I got fired from a job I’d had for 18 years. I lost my dog, I lost my best friend to lung cancer, I lost my grandma. My romantic relationship ended. Everything that I cared about and believed in disappeared.
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That’s around when I started drinking. My savings ran out. I lost my insurance, which had paid for my depression and anxiety medication. I got evicted. My car was almost repossessed, twice. I tried to soldier on, to act as if I was going to be OK. But I wasn’t.
One morning, I got up after a sleepless night, and thought about killing myself. I just didn’t see a way out. It took me about an hour to decide to do it, and once I did, I felt at peace.
I cleaned my apartment. And then I loaded the gun I had for protection, a .357 revolver, with hollow point bullets, because I knew that would kill me. I didn’t want the bullet to go through me and through the ceiling because the guy living above me had a dog I adored. The last thing I wanted to do was hurt either of them. So I decided to shoot myself on the balcony, which was made of thicker wood.
It was 7 a.m. and I sat there for a moment and prayed. I prayed that God would forgive me for what I was about to do. I prayed that my family and friends would be OK. Then I pulled the trigger, and it clicked. I’d only loaded four bullets into a five-bullet revolver. And I thought, Oh my god. Maybe this isn’t meant to be?
I looked down at my phone and went through my contact list, looking at my friends’ names. I felt like I had worn out my welcome with everyone. I thought about how I’d ruin their day by telling them that I had just tried to kill myself. Now I know that was the depression talking, but back then, I just didn’t want to be a burden anymore.
So I decided that I really did want to die, and I put the gun underneath my chin and pulled the trigger again. This time there was a huge explosion.
I heard my roommate scream, “What the hell was that?!” I didn’t know he was home. That’s what saved my life — he called 911.
I can only imagine what he saw because I blew my face off. I lost two thirds of my teeth, all of the right side of my face, a third of my tongue, and my right eye. I wasn’t in pain. I was just surprised. I had been waiting to see my life flash before my eyes, to see the white light, and none of it happened.
I heard sirens. I remember a man putting his hands on my shoulders and saying, “You’re going to be OK. I’ve got you.” And then I blacked out.
I was taken to Fairfax Inova Hospital and was in a semi-coma for three weeks. I was vaguely aware of my visitors. So many friends came by that I was told later they lifted the restriction of only two visitors at a time. My mother, brother, father, and stepmother were there. I remember being annoyed with my mom because she kept making me wiggle my fingers and toes to prove I could hear, and I just wanted to sleep.
When I woke up from my coma, my dad was holding my hand. He told me all that I had to do was heal. He said I’d been saved for a reason and we were going to find out what that reason was.
My face was gone, so I couldn’t talk or eat or drink. I had a tracheotomy and a feeding tube in my stomach. And I had to chop off all my hair because it was full of blood and bone. But I was so happy to be alive.
It wasn’t easy to find a place where I could recover. I ended up moving into an extended stay hotel, where I took care of myself for two years. I got on disability and Medicaid and my family pitched in. I also started to see a psychiatrist and a therapist. Because I couldn’t talk, I’d type on the computer in a large font, and they’d sit behind me and read what I wrote.
It wasn’t until the trache came out in November 2012 and the hole in my throat closed that I could begin to talk again. The wonderful man that I was dating at the time is partially deaf so I had to speak with emphasis and clarity in order for him to understand me. I’d have to repeat things five, six, seven times and then write them down. It was a form of speech therapy. I was eligible for formal speech therapy, but I felt I was doing pretty well on my own and because rest was such a vital part of my recovery, I tried to limit my activities. It was about a year before I could speak clearly enough for most people to understand me.
In November 2013, three years after I tried to commit suicide, I could finally talk again, and I started volunteering at the hospital that saved my life. One day, I walked into the room of a young kid who had a sitter — someone who had to stay with him 24/7 because he’d attempted suicide. I told him that I’d once tried to kill myself. He opened up and told me things that he hadn’t told anyone else. I held his hand and listened, and that’s when I knew: This is why I’ve been saved.
I am still missing a third of my tongue, and I have 11 teeth. You can tell that something happened to me, but I look mostly like I did before. And that is due to the skill and perseverance of my amazing plastic surgeon, Dr. Reza Mirali. Because I knew how much he believed in me, I never got to that point where I wanted to give up.
I’ve had 46 surgeries, and I’ve learned that the more sleep I get, the faster I heal. So I sleep 16 hours a day. And yes, this whole process has been very painful. I’m glad to say that I’m not on any prescription painkillers – I don’t want to be an addict. I take one Aleve every day and that’s enough to keep the tears out of my eyes.
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I take my housemate’s black Labrador for walks. I spend a lot of time on Facebook, and I’m writing a book about my experience. I don’t drink anymore. I know that in order to keep myself sane and happy, I can’t. I’ve been dating someone for three years who is very, very supportive of my surgeries and my scars. He’s so unconditionally loving. It’s been wonderful.
For about a year, any time I saw a gun in front of me, I felt compelled to pick it up and shoot myself. I am around guns because I have several friends who are ex-military and they own guns, and I also have a lot of friends who are pro-gun, so when I visit their houses, I know there are guns in the house. But that’s OK, I’m fine with that now. It’s not a risk factor for me anymore.
My dad asked the detective who worked on my case to have my gun destroyed so it would never hurt another person. I will never own another gun again.
For the most part, people have been very supportive, but I’ve lost friends because they don’t want to be there if I try it again, or they don’t want me around their children. There’s a stigma with suicide, and some people think I’m crazy or unbalanced.
I worry about re-entering the job market and trying to explain this six-year blank in my resume. I’m going to tell them why because I’ve been so open about my suicide attempt that anyone who Googles me will see it.
At the same time, I think that’s the only way to go forward: to be open and honest. Perhaps by acknowledging how severe depression and anxiety can be, we can provide help for other people. If I can cause one person to reach out and ask for help because of my example, then talking about this will all be worth it.
If I could go back to my younger self in October 2010, I’d tell her to call my dad and let him know how bad it is. My dad dropped everything to rush to me and has never left. I didn’t realize he was willing to do that.
That’s an example of the tunnel vision that you get with anxiety and depression. When you’re in the middle of the worst time of your entire life, you can’t see anything else. You can’t see a way forward; all you can see is down.
If anyone is feeling like they might be thinking of hurting themselves, they should reach out to a suicide hotline or someone who cares. Help will flood in, they will be amazed. I have been. Help is there. And it’s worth it. Life is worth it.
The National Suicide Prevention Hotline is 1 (800) 273-8255. It is available 24 hours a day.
[Photo courtesy of Christen McGinnes]