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Florida Times-Union Jacksonville.com
By Topher Sanders
Thu, Jul 12, 2012
Shauna Terrell attempted suicide three times by the time she was 13, including shooting herself in the chest with a .357. This is her story of survival.
The screams from the bathroom broke the silence of the mental health facility.
Shauna Terrell and the other teenage girls in the sitting room looked in the direction of the noise, but they didn’t dare jump up or react as if it were a high school fight. That would have gotten them in trouble.
The screaming girl in the bathroom was one of the few Shauna had connected with in any way during her two months there. The two girls talked about their home lives, whether they wanted to live and how many times they had tried to take their lives. For Shauna, the number was three by the time she was 13.
Four staff members at the facility had run into the bathroom; Shauna was called in to remove a staff member’s glasses so they didn’t get broken. She went to the bathroom and saw the girl writhing on the floor with blood running from her left shoulder.
She had used a pen to try to cut out her pacemaker, the device that was keeping her alive. The girl was trying to kill herself.
Shauna didn’t understand why.
Watching the screaming and thrashing of the desperate teenager was the first time Shauna saw what her family in Jacksonville had been seeing in her for the past three years. Someone who didn’t want to live.
“I just didn’t know what was so different that day that she had to do that,” Shauna said. “It made me think that my parents must have felt like this times a million.”
It wasn’t until she was surrounded by a dozen girls who wanted to die that 14-year-old Shauna Terrell decided she wanted to live.
THE GIRL WITHOUT DREAMS
Shauna didn’t always want to die.
Prior to 2009, Shauna was a happy, bubbly child. She was always a little “grown for her age,” but she loved to play and laugh, especially with her father, Toby.
Short and strong, Toby is the kind of dad kids like to climb on and wrestle. Shauna loved sneaking up on him for an attack of playful bear hugs. Shauna always sought out her father because of his persistent joy and knack for being able to put a smile on her face.
The family of six loved Brunswick, Maine, where Toby was stationed with the Navy.
Shauna and her three sisters, Tanietha, Tasia and Jasmine, now ages 17, 13 and 11, liked their schools, had plenty of friends and were involved in tons of activities. Toby and Sabrina, Shauna’s mother, liked Brunswick’s slow pace.
It was a military town where there was always a barbecue or a get-together.
Shauna was happy and living.
That began to change when Toby left for his first deployment with a Special Forces unit to Qatar. A daddy’s girl, Shauna sensed the walls closing in on her.
“He left and things kind of fell apart for me because that’s who I depended on,” she said. “I felt like I didn’t have anybody.”
In a house full of people, Shauna felt alone. She concealed her anxiety and depression with fake smiles and laughs. She didn’t trust her mother, a recovering alcoholic who had been sober for years.
She clung to the hope that everything would be better when her father returned. But things didn’t get better.
Shauna couldn’t sneak up on him with a hug like before because the deployment had left Toby jumpy and nervous in Shauna’s eyes.
“He was very distant and to himself,” Shauna said. “He was there but it was like he wasn’t there.”
Toby said he wasn’t distant; he was simply trying to adjust to life back at home after his deployment.
Shauna thought the best way for her to help her dad was to not bother him, so she withdrew.
She began to not want the things her friends talked about. Dreams of college, marriage and a career eluded her.
Emptiness filled her. Slowly, 11-year-old Shauna decided she didn’t want to live.
NO LONGER WANTING TO BE HERE
One Friday in March, Shauna went into the bathroom and took three Tylenol PMs, 15 Ibuprofen and drank a bottle of cough syrup.
Later that night, Shauna complained to her parents about having a headache. Sabrina noticed Shauna’s eyes were glassy and twitchy. She took Shauna’s blood pressure and it was abnormally high. Sabrina also found an empty box of Tylenol PM in Shauna’s room. She thought Shauna had accidentally overdosed and took her to a clinic.
Walking into the clinic, Sabrina was struck with a question. Sabrina asked her young daughter if she had overdosed on purpose. Shauna answered yes, then asked about the person who mattered most to her.
“Does Daddy hate me now?”
The clinic wasn’t equipped to handle Shauna’s medical needs. They put her in an ambulance to Portland, Maine. In the ambulance her heart stopped. Paramedics brought her back.
The medical staff in Portland wanted to send Shauna to an intensive facility for mental health. Toby and Sabrina refused, not comfortable with the idea of their daughter being in a facility that catered to adults and was more than an hour away from home. Today they think that may have been the wrong decision, but they aren’t sure the intense therapy would have helped Shauna value her life.
No one could understand why an 11-year-old wouldn’t want to live.
Her parents wondered what had happened to their daughter to cause her to do something so drastic. The medical staff and counselors began looking at Toby and Sabrina as if they were to blame.
“I kind of jumped at the therapist guy because he was coming at me like it was an abusive situation or something,” Toby said.
Shauna went into an outpatient program for nearly five months, but she didn’t give it a chance.
She lied, she diverted, she manipulated. She told them she didn’t know why she had done it. She said she was just stressed or that school was difficult. Shauna didn’t receive a diagnosis, but she was given the antidepressant Wellbutrin, the first of many medications.
Shauna still wanted to die. But by the time her family moved from Maine to Florida, she had nearly perfected her act of living.
It was a facade she maintained until she asked to go to the bathroom one day at her new school in Ocala. A boy she didn’t know followed her. The boy raped Shauna. She was 12.
When Shauna got off the school bus the day of her assault, she vowed to never return. Her mother asked if it was because Shauna wasn’t making friends or just having a tough time fitting in.
“I’m just not going back,” Shauna said.
The assault became Shauna’s latest secret. A secret her family wouldn’t learn for nearly a year and a half. “I didn’t tell my parents because I didn’t want to ruin everything for everybody,” she said. “Everybody liked Ocala.”
Today, talking about the rape in Ocala, Shauna’s voice cracks and eyes fill with tears. It’s one of the few times Shauna gets emotional as she discusses her life. It’s something she still grapples with.
Immediately after the assault, Shauna was mad at her father. Had her “daddy” been in town, somehow he could have saved her, she thought. Now she knows that isn’t true.
She blamed herself for the attack as well. Had she not asked to go to the bathroom – she only did it because she was bored with class – it wouldn’t have happened, she thought.
She felt ashamed and embarrassed.
It was all too much.
Three days after being raped, Shauna went to the bathroom and took more than 50 Nyquil and Dayquil liquid capsules and several Tylenol and Ibuprofen pills.
It was her second suicide attempt in seven months.
She threw up the cocktail in the middle of the night, and her mother found green vomit on the floor the next morning.
Shauna was held under the Baker Act, which allows state-endorsed agencies to hold people for mental health evaluation for up to three days. She stayed in a children’s psychiatric ward for a week and a half. She didn’t get an official diagnosis, but officials said she suffered from depression; this time, the medication was Prozac.
Research shows that any previous suicide attempt increases the likelihood someone will attempt or complete suicide in the future.
This was part of Sabrina’s and Toby’s education through fire on depression, mental illness and suicide. No one in Maine had educated them on Shauna’s likelihood to try again, even with all the therapy.
Sabrina and Toby talked with the mental health professionals in Ocala about finding a solution for Shauna, but they were told kids go through things. Kids get depressed sometimes. Maybe she was stressed by the move.
“They said it was a cry for attention, and they don’t start taking suicide attempts seriously until it’s a hanging or a shooting,” Sabrina said. “When you have professionals telling you that, you believe it.”
Shauna hustled everybody: her parents, the counselors, the therapists and her sisters.
When the family moved from Ocala to Yellow Water, a military housing community near Normandy Boulevard and Bicentennial Drive, Shauna even started to hustle herself.
Life was good in Yellow Water. Shauna had many distractions that kept her from dwelling on her depression, her emptiness and the assault.
She had a boyfriend, and she loved her new school, Baldwin Middle Senior High, and there were tons of kids in the neighborhood to hang out with.
For seven months, Shauna was “OK” with living. But it wasn’t real. The emptiness wasn’t gone. It was just masked by the cool new friends, the boyfriend and track practice.
And then Toby and Sabrina announced the family was buying a house on Jacksonville’s Westside. Shauna would soon be losing her distractions.
Shauna began looking for a way to kill herself the minute the family began unpacking in the new home.
After about a month, on a night when her mother and father were on a dinner date, she stepped into the shower with a knife.
She sat in the bathtub letting the water wash her tears down the drain. She wanted to end her pain. Her trembling hand raised the blade and brought it toward her stomach.
But she couldn’t do it. The anticipated physical pain only allowed her to touch, but never break, her skin.
Even as Shauna sought an end, she maintained the illusion with her family. She even promised Jasmine, the baby of the family, that she wouldn’t try to kill herself again.
Meanwhile, Shauna’s depression, loneliness and angst had taken over.
“You feel empty every day,” she said, “and each day is just worse because you know what you’re about to do and you know what you want to do.”
It wouldn’t be the knife. It would be her father’s .357 Magnum. The gun he kept to protect his family would be the gun Shauna would use to end her life.
THE DAY THAT CHANGED A FAMILY
Toby often carried the gun with him. But on a cool September morning in 2010, he left the house with the gun still wedged between his bed frame and mattress.
Shauna waited several minutes before grabbing the gun to ensure her father didn’t return.
When she wrapped her hands around the gun’s handle, she finally felt what she was searching for: relief.
Shauna called the mother of her former boyfriend and through tears, told her she intended to kill herself. The boyfriend’s mother became frantic and tried to keep Shauna on the phone. Shauna hung up.
Shauna placed the poems she had written to her family on her bed, unplugged the phones in the house and left.
During the 40-yard walk from her front door to a neighborhood gazebo, Shauna’s only thought was ending her life before construction workers arrived for duty on a nearby home.
At the gazebo, Shauna sat on the ground, gun in her right hand and cried.
She battled internally for 15 minutes over whether to call back her former boyfriend’s mother and tell her she wasn’t going to do it.
But she felt it was too late. Momentum had her. If she didn’t do it, she knew she’d be put back in a mental facility.
“I wasn’t going to get put away for something I didn’t do,” Shauna said.
All of the pain, doubt, loneliness, violation and emptiness pooled together at that moment.
The ear buds of Shauna’s mp3 player blared Rihanna’s “Russian Roulette,” a dark song with lyrics about pulling a trigger and not seeing another sunrise.
She put the gun to her chest.
Counted to three.
Tasia was the only sister at home when Shauna was found. Tasia saw her sister being flown away by a helicopter and her mother breaking down in tears and having to be restrained by police. Tasia was scared for Shauna and thinking about how her other sisters would take the news of another attempt.
The first night Shauna was at Shands, it was unclear she would live.
The bullet entered Shauna’s left lung, fragmented in her body and pushed a portion of her rib out of her back.
Detectives told the family Shauna would die and that they wanted them to talk with a chaplain to prepare.
Toby was asked to identify his little girl.
“That’s the hardest thing you can ever do in your whole life,” Toby said. “Seeing your child lying on that bed. That’s the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my life. That broke me down to my soul.”
Shauna’s sisters asked if she would live or die. Sabrina and Toby gave them the only answer they had: They didn’t know.
Little Jasmine took Shauna’s attempt the hardest because her big sister had made a commitment.
“But she promised,” said Jasmine, through tears, when she was told.
Later that night, the family learned Shauna would live. Sabrina and Toby knew this is where the hard work started.
Shauna spent six weeks in a medically induced coma. Another two weeks was used to determine whether her lungs would work independently of a breathing machine.
When Shauna was finally awake and alert, she was angry, frustrated and sad to still be alive.
“I failed,” she told herself. “This sucks.”
No one discussed the gunshot during the two weeks she was alert at the hospital before leaving for therapy. It was the elephant in the room during the family’s visits.
Tanietha was so furious with Shauna she didn’t visit until toward the end of her hospital stay.
“I was angry, deep down in my soul I was angry,” Tanietha said. “What’s so horrible about her life, because she has it so good compared to most people. That’s just how I was thinking.”
Tanietha was also worried that Shauna’s decision could have sent her father to jail because she had used his gun. No criminal charges were filed in the case.
Shauna, her parents and sometimes her sisters spent the next eight months in therapy session after therapy session.
There were a lot of tears and a lot of honest moments. One of those moments came when the family finally learned about the rape.
Toby and Sabrina immediately told police, who narrowed Shauna’s attacker to a handful of students. Shauna’s therapist, however, didn’t think the teenager was emotionally ready to identify her attacker and deal with the legal system.
But there weren’t enough of those honest moments.
Shauna was still up to the same games. She was cavalier about her therapy and having shot herself. Her parents were working too hard to help their daughter and her sisters were sacrificing too much for Shauna to not take things seriously, Sabrina said.
When Shauna was trying to integrate back home it was awkward for her and her sisters. Feelings in the house about what she had done were still raw and there was resentment over the amount of time Shauna was monopolizing with their parents. There were some shouting matches between Shauna and Tanietha and Shauna and Tasia.
Shauna had an attitude, her sisters had attitudes, and her parents were, in Shauna’s words, “stalking her.”
It was a tense period.
The discovery of more disturbing writing and Shauna’s failure to take her medications compelled a therapist to suggest Shauna be sent to a specialty facility in Savannah, Ga.
She spent 10 weeks in Savannah. It was there, cut off from the white noise of phones, TV, Facebook and music, that Shauna completely focused on her mental health.
The program stripped her of all independence. She couldn’t do anything – go to the bathroom, open the refrigerator – without approval. She spent every day working on her depression, and her perception of herself and her life.
She was surrounded by peers whose challenges appeared steeper and more dramatic than her own. There were girls who had been impregnated by relatives, another who attempted suicide by throwing herself from a moving car. And, there was the girl who tried to cut out her own pacemaker to kill herself.
Finally, Shauna decided who she wanted to be.
“You realize, like, ‘I don’t want to be that kid,’ ” she said. “There was another girl that was in there who had been there for like years. And I was like, I don’t want that to be me. I don’t want to go all this time wondering if the sun is shining right now because I don’t know because I’m inside.”
Sabrina and Toby noticed a change in Shauna about halfway through her stay.
They were in a therapy session when the therapist challenged Shauna on why she hadn’t told her parents about the rape.
Shauna would normally get defensive and dismissive and deflect the conversation. But during this session, she listened. Sabrina could see Shauna was taking ownership of challenges.
It seemed Shauna had finally found the desire to live.
“I need something more, I want something more,” she said.
Many things have changed for the entire family.
Toby remains a gun enthusiast but now keeps the gun he carries locked in a safe at night, instead of by his bed side.
All medicine in the house is kept in a locked cabinet in Toby and Sabrina’s room just as it was before her third attempt. And the girls aren’t allowed to close the bedroom doors.
Sabrina and Toby have come to appreciate how prescription medication can help those with mental health problems. Shauna is currently on her fifth anti-depressant. They also are more diligent about making sure Shauna gets enough sleep.
The parents also don’t pull any punches with Shauna. In the immediate aftermath of her shooting, they walked on eggshells around her, trying not to push her over the edge. That’s over.
The couple said parents should take all suicide attempts, even a perceived cry for help, seriously.
“It takes a lot of different people to help, and as parents you can’t be embarrassed and you shouldn’t feel hopeless,” Sabrina said.
And don’t be meek or afraid to call your child on their “B.S.” if you need to, Sabrina said. Toby and Sabrina hope their family’s story ignites private and public conversations about suicide prevention that can chip away at the stigma.
Healing with Shauna’s sisters has been complicated. Tanietha, who Shauna was closest to before the suicide attempts, is starting to find her rhythm with her little sister. But for Tasia, who watched the aftermath of Shauna shooting herself, the emotions are still strong.
“I’m really angry till this day at her,” Tasia said. “I don’t think I’ll ever stop being angry at her. I’ll love her with all my heart, but I don’t think I’ll ever be the same way with her.”
Shauna gets it. She knows she’ll just have to keep working to regain her sisters’ trust.
The baby of the family, Jasmine, just wants the best for Shauna.
“I hope that she goes to college and gets a good job and gets married and has children and that she lives happily ever after and stuff,” she said. “I hope she dies of old age.”
Shauna, now 15, said she feels her suicide attempts were “selfish” and she sees how they’ve hurt everyone around her. She wants her story to be a testimony for young people struggling with thoughts of suicide.
“There are other ways out,” she said. “You don’t have to kill yourself so that you don’t feel. That’s part of life, you need to feel. You need to be able to have emotions.”
As painful as a circumstance may seem at the time, Shauna said, the pain is temporary and young people should open up about their problems and talk with someone close to them.
THE GIRL WITH DREAMS
Shauna’s ninth-grade year at Forrest High School just ended, and it was good. She did well in class, earning one of the school’s best reading scores on state exams.
She performed phenomenally in her Air Force JROTC program. She was named “Cadet of the Year” among first-year cadets.
Shauna’s not quite as bubbly as she was at age 11, but she’s still playful and has that loud laugh. You can’t miss it.
She’s a typical teenager. She makes mistakes and doesn’t always listen to her parents, like that time she got her navel pierced. But she’s healthy, and that’s what matters to Toby and Sabrina.
And Shauna’s work continues. Now she’s is in a therapy group to deal with the attack in Ocala. She’s in that group because she wants to be.
The family is gearing up for another military move next month, this time to Newport, R.I., a virtual carbon copy of Brunswick, Maine. The family is moving back to a community like the one they lived in when times were amazing, barbecues were plentiful and all the Terrell children were happy.
Shauna wants to go to college and become a pediatric psychiatrist. “I want to help kids like me,” she said.
She is living to pursue her dreams.
“I’m Shauna, I’m doing better, I’m dealing with life,” she said, cuddling a stuffed sheep she got from the facility in Ocala. “I want to be alive.”
Topher Sanders: (904) 359-4169