My Life as a Survivor
I’m Jen James, the Founding Supervisor at Crisis Text Line, and I’m a survivor. I’ve shared this story in the past, but never written it down. Here goes.
I like to break down my story into three pivotal parts of my life. I think of them as Birth, Rebirth and Reincarnation.
Picture this: it’s December 31, 1972, 3-ish in the afternoon. My parents are on their way to the hospital to give birth to me. I’m the fifth child, so they knew what they were doing at this point. Driving down Woodward Avenue in Pontiac MI, my mom burped, and “Bloop!” here I come! I was born in a 1970 purple Dodge Demon. My mother caught me in her Muumuu. You know those super ugly long dresses that look like nightgowns? That was it: I was caught in a MuuMuu before hitting the floor of the car. A New Year’s Eve baby born in a car - a Dodge Demon, no less. This set the stage for my life as a survivor.
Fast Forward to 1995. I’m in my 4th year of college. (I was on the 5-year plan - don’t judge!) I was depressed, but I didn’t know what that meant. I would go to parties and just feel so alone, unattractive, unwanted. I chose dangerous coping methods, like drinking until I passed out, or hurting myself by punching walls or picking at my skin. On the outside, I was making people laugh and the life of the party, but inside I was dying. I started isolating myself from most of the people in my life and had low self-esteem.
Throughout college, I was an insomniac. I would average 5-7 hours of sleep… a week. My daily routine was: go to class, go to work, go home, and then stay up all night.
But April 5 was a particularly rough night for me.
The voices that I had been hearing since I was around 18 were particularly loud that night. Up until then, I just thought of it as my conscience saying, “do this” or “don’t do that.” But as I sat watching infomercials that night, they were louder than ever, saying: I’m no good... No one would care if I died... I should just go and kill myself…
I’d had suicidal thoughts many times before, but this night was different. I wanted to silence the voices. I did something drastic, hoping it would kill me. I know for certain that I wanted to die that night.
Remember, it was 1995. I didn’t talk about these thoughts and feeling, because no one else was talking about them. I swept it all under the rug. We tried to make it go away, no matter what the cost.
I was surprised to wake up the next morning to my roommate shaking me. She knew I had been depressed. I started crying, and she told me to call my mom. After some calls to my insurance, I was able to connect with a doctor, who diagnosed me with bipolar disorder, anxiety, and panic disorder. Finally, it made sense! It wasn’t my fault; it was my brain. The help from medicine and therapy kept me alive. After that, I wanted to truly start living - it was a rebirth.
Skip ahead to April 20, 2014. Easter Sunday. (Apparently, April isn’t a good month for me.)
I was in the shower, doing my usual thing (you know, washing my bits and all), when I felt a lump in my left breast. I was confused, so I went to my husband Kevin and asked him to feel it, too. I thought maybe the Easter Bunny was messing with me by hiding an egg in my boob - it felt that big.
After many appointments, mammograms and biopsies, my doctor called me to tell me the news: it was cancer. Everyone around me fell apart crying. I was in shock, but I felt responsible for taking care of everyone else. When I finally met with the oncology team, I was diagnosed with Stage 2+ breast cancer, invasive aggressive cell formation. It meant I had a pretty big tumor: two, in fact. Even though it’s the most common form of breast cancer, the survival rate was about 58-64%. My chance at life wasn't much better than flipping a coin. It was terrifying to hear.
I decided that I had two choices: I could go back into deep depression and just stop trying, which I had every right to do, or I could fight. I chose to fight. I chose being strong and funny and my attitude was positive! I needed so much support to stay that way.
I began the chemo infusion in the end of July. Every time I would go for an infusion, I would wear something super silly or a fun hat to celebrate the time of the year. This made me happy, because I knew I was bringing light into a room full of people in pain.
Being injected with poison? Not something you think about until you are seeing it hooked up - then it’s suddenly very real.
Infusions were on Thursdays. Saturday, Sunday, and Monday were the worst. I was in bed the whole time. Aches and pains, stomach sickness. I wanted to curl up in the fetal position, wrap myself in a blanket burrito of sadness, and cry. I had no energy. My husky, Legend, always knew when I was not feeling well and would lay right next to me the whole time. My husband and kids knew that I wasn’t myself, and they brought me tea, water, or even jolly ranchers to help with the nasty taste in my mouth.
They would sit on the bed with me and watch mindless shows on Netflix. They were not going to let me go through that alone. It was important to have them see the ups and downs of my experience. My goal was to teach them they can get through anything with support and a positive attitude.
So yeah, my life so far has been a “Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride.” Looking back, I realize I got into the crisis intervention space in January of 2011, by volunteering at first, knowing I wanted to help those who didn’t have anywhere else to turn. To let others know there is someone there to listen. And even through the “Year of Cancer.” I would never have been able to be so positive if it wasn’t for my trainings and learnings along the way. I think the biggest takeaway from my life is that I matter, and I’m not alone. I feel that having that lived experience gives me a unique gift of perspective.
Jen has held many prominent roles at Crisis Text Line, including creating the volunteer curriculum & training, hiring & training the original supervision team, and serving as the voice of the community. Bottomline: Jen is the heart of Crisis Text Line and the spine of its philosophy.