OWATONNA — When she woke up on the morning March 29, 2013, Teagan Kempe was in a dark place.
She didn’t sleep well overnight. She hadn’t eaten in a while. Her grades from taking online classes at Riverland Community College had been on a downward slide for nearly two semesters. She agonized over why she couldn’t focus, because she loved being in school.
While at her church the night before, Kempe’s pastor said something that haunted her.
“Jesus specializes in making dead people feel alive,” he told her.
Kempe felt dead. She felt like her identity was being displaced by depression, unraveling ties to herself and the people she held close. It was too much to reach out to them now.
So when she got up that morning, she wondered why she couldn’t feel alive. Things kept feeling worse that day, and by the evening she decided to try and stop it.
An impulse led her to grab a razor and run it through the skin on her arms. It cut through the previous scars she made when she was 15 and again at 17. She cut herself more thoroughly this time, but it wouldn’t do. It wouldn’t kill her.
“I figured, ‘These aren’t deep enough. This is not going to work,’” Kempe said. “So I went to my medicine cabinet and I took every single pill I could find.”
She swallowed a fistful of 800-mg ibuprofen tablets and four narcotic painkillers that she had from a previous surgery. But those wouldn’t do it either, she figured.
Her mind raced through the details of death. Would she leave a note? Should she tell people goodbye? No. Her phone rang, but she silenced it. Then she looked toward her window.
Her next impulse was to jump off the balcony. At just two stories up, there was a chance she would just severely injure herself in the fall.
“I gotta do it head-first, so I don’t end up paralyzed or something,” she thought to herself.
She didn’t want to live through it. But the phone rang again, and this time she picked it up.
Minnesota’s suicide rate is the 10th-lowest in the nation, according to Melissa Heinen, suicide prevention coordinator for the state Department of Health. But the number has been rising. The department’s most recent data cited 12.4 suicides per 100,000 people in 2011 — the highest rate in 20 years.
Though the southeast part of the state had a lower incidence of suicide in 2011, it is by no means immune. In 2012, a Steele County family was devastated by the suicide of 15-year-old Jacob Robert Sikel. Through their grieving, the teen’s family members came together to form the Open Arms Yellow Ribbon Program to raise awareness.
Today, Kempe actively supports groups like Open Arms. The experience of her past year — living through a suicide attempt and months of treatment — weighs on her. She talks about the value of life after coming so close to ending it.
And today, one year after the incident, she’s feeling better than ever.
When talking about her experience, Kempe is quick to name the dates. She even recounts which day of the week each event was, like chronological milestones during her 225 days of treatment.
She has the energetic character of a 20-year-old on the brink of some grand life journey, fidgeting abruptly with a wide grin when she talks about going back to college and starting to write a book. The gravity with which she talks about her future is felt when she speaks.
A friend, Kirstin Harrington, describes Kempe this way: “Very deeply passionate; driven and adventurous; bubbly."
That passion comes when Kempe thinks about her past year, and how she doesn’t want anyone else to go through similar events. She’s surprisingly open about it — even the darkest parts.
Coming out of the dark
When Kempe picked up the phone on March 29, 2013, her arms were bleeding. Her stomach was full of pills. It was a friend on the other line.
In a sentence, Kempe halted a grisly chain of events that threatened her life. She explained her suicidal thoughts to her friend, who promptly called the police. Kempe then grabbed her purse, put her ID, cell phone, pill bottle labels and razor blades inside, and went downstairs to meet the emergency responders.
An ambulance took Kempe to Mercy Hospital Surgery Center in Elk River. Doctors examined her blood-red arms and conducted interviews before sending her to the fifth floor for mental illness treatment.
Kempe had long suspected that she had a mental illness. Even after incidents of self-harm during her teenage years, she had ignored seeking treatment. But when she read the statement she gave to doctors that night, dazed from the pills, ignoring treatment was impossible.
“I just wanted to die so that I could go and be with God and not feel the pain of the world I was living in,” the statement read. It shocked Kempe to read it, even in her situation.
The next few days were filled with sickness and pain, a result of the pills. Severe headaches pulsed just behind her eyes. At skin level, she was numb, but inside, it felt like something was trying to break out of her stomach as her body fought to get rid of the substances.
By the third week at Mercy, she had to drop out of school. She was on suicide watch all day and night, and distanced herself initially from the other patients. After a while, the group talks became easier. She started to open herself up to others and the social dynamic of therapy.
“It’s like being in kindergarten,” she said. “In kindergarten, you’re not afraid of what people are going to think of you because you haven’t been introduced to that part of society yet.”
Kempe and the other patients met each other as they all went through deeply personal times. Once a connection was made and people began opening up to each other, the resulting bond was deep as a result.
In meetings, patients would talk about intense details about their lives. It became comfortable for Kempe to share those things.
But a point always came when someone would recover and leave the hospital, adding another impactful emotional layer onto the experience. It happened again and again as a revolving door of patients could come in as some went out, and it was trying on Kempe’s psyche.
“It’s like this whole cycle that does not stop,” she said.
Remembering the days
The hospital diagnosed Kempe with depression and anxiety. After nearly two months at Mercy, the hospital finally found a more long-term treatment facility and moved her to Community Options, an intensive residential treatment services center in Fridley.
It was May 20, she remembers.
It’s not uncommon that it takes months to find treatment centers for patients. Ed Eide, executive director for the Mental Health Association of Minnesota, said that while treatment strategies are improving, they don’t have the funding to reach vast underserved areas.
“I think people are diagnosed earlier so we can get intervention services in place,” he said. “But we still have a shortage of services.”
Over 70 counties in Minnesota are in dire need of trained professionals in mental health treatment, he said. More psychiatrists are retiring than are coming in. Kempe had to wait to move from Elk River to Fridley.
Community Options was a smaller, house-like building that treated nine patients at a time. After easing into a small level of routine at the hospital, she now had another group to warm up to. The social cycle continued.
Kempe was slow to get used to the facility. For the first couple weeks, she wouldn’t shower and kept to herself when possible. Tinges of depression still haunted her, and her medication regimen cast a fog over everything.
Patients there could wake up when they pleased. There were daily chores to do, and the staff brought them out to go bowling or see a movie. They could even check out on some days. Harrington visited regularly to take Kempe out for a while.
As time went on, Harrington noticed a change in her friend.
“Before, it was kind of a self-pity thing,” she said. “She was motivated again.”
Kempe read books about suicide and mental illness, trying to understand her own condition. She kept journals, which helped to express and understand her emotions. She also kept a log from the group sessions, which she still looks at today from time to time for encouragement.
After 86 days, Kempe slipped into an emotional drainage and was sent to a short-term, acute treatment facility in Alexandria called Community Behavioral Health Hospital.
It was August 14.
There, she didn’t have roommates like she did before. She was confined to the small facility 24/7, only allowed to go outside briefly onto a small, fenced area.
“We didn’t get to touch the grass. We didn’t get to touch the trees,” she said. “That little fence had cement under it, that’s it.”
While in Alexandria, Kempe began to make strides in recovery. Her medication was reduced and her mood lightened.
The staff enlisted her to lead therapy classes. She said they wanted to see if the patients would respond better to another patient, but Kempe said she was excited to do it. Her teaching moments gave her a sense of newfound responsibility.
But the main factor in her turnaround was the staff.
“A good treat center will tell you that you’re not crazy because you have an illness, and they’ll tell you that people don’t look at you and think, ‘she’s weird because she has a problem,’” she said.
Kempe said she made more progress than in one month at CBHH than in the previous three months, but after her time in the short-term facility, she returned to Community Options in Fridley.
That was September 10, she said.
Kempe stayed just another month at the treatment center before being released on November 9. Four days later, she moved to her grandmother’s house in Florida, feeling refreshed to put the 225-day experience behind her.
But the constraints of her treatment eventually called her back.
“About a month later, I got a call from this woman, who said, ‘Hi, I’m your social worker. You’re not allowed to leave the state.’”
Kempe said her original social worker had left his job and she had not been introduced to a new one before she moved. Under the terms of her civil commitment, a court-ordered treatment plan, she had to return to Minnesota and resume outpatient therapy.
In January, Kempe moved to Owatonna, her hometown, to live with her mother. She completed the requirements of her commitment soon after, which capped off an experience that began nearly a year before and brought her back from the brink of suicide.
That was February 14, she recalls.
Starting the conversation
Just a few months out of intensive treatment, Kempe feels renewed in her sobriety and outlook.
“I feel like this life is so new and so fresh and I feel like I’ve only been in it for a year,” she said. “So when I have those gloomy days, I’m just like, ‘No, this is a new life. It’s fine.’”
Riverland accepted Kempe’s return application, and she plans to study psychology and religious studies, all while focusing on writing. She wants to finish a book about her year.
First, she’s writing more than 100 thank-you cards to the people who have helped her through treatment. Fellow patients, friends, church members and her mother provided a generous support system, she said.
She’s also wants to be an activist for suicide prevention and awareness. As a field advocate for the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, she helps to manage local campaigns and writes Steele County legislators to lobby for support. Her Twitter page is full of helpful comments to strangers — people who seem to be having the issues she’s had.
It’s important to start the conversation, she said, to help ease the stigma for the next person who feels deeply depressed.
“The biggest reason why I decided to stay alive after so long being in Mercy and being suicidal for so long is — I was like, ‘what if I can help other people realize that they deserve to live?’”
On March 29, 2014, Kempe will celebrate one year since she nearly bottomed out, only to go through months of treatment and come out smiling. That’s a date she’ll remember.
“I love looking back on my story because it’s mine,” she said. “God gave it to me. I want to share that with people.”