By Natalie Pierre
Editor’s Note: October is Domestic Violence Awareness Month. This story contains a vivid description of self-immolation and references to suicide. It is not appropriate for all readers. This story was originally published June 8, 2018. This is Natalie’s Story.
This morning I woke up to a TV blaring in my living room. My 11-year-old nephew was fast asleep on my couch and left the TV on after we watched the Washington Capitals celebrate with Lord Stanley’s Cup.
As I went to turn it off, Good Morning America started talking about chef and TV personality Anthony Bourdain, who was found dead in his French hotel room after an apparent suicide. The news brought tears to my eyes — not because I knew Bourdain, read of his adventures or even watched him on TV.
I was moved to tears because I know exactly how it feels to struggle mightily and keep the details of what you’re going through to yourself to the point of breaking. With Bourdain’s death coming on the heels of fashion designer Kate Spade’s suicide earlier this week, I felt like this was an appropriate time to hit pause on the life I am so fortunate to still have and take some time out to share my story.
On September 8, 2015 — my 26th birthday — I nearly took my own life. After spending Labor Day by the pool outside of the Vestavia Hills, Alabama home my husband, Chasten, and I were about to move into, the evening turned ugly. We fought, as we did most nights. He made threats of leaving me, taking everything I had, and doing whatever he could to ruin my career as a sports reporter. That was also a regular occurrence for us. Having gotten married in May of that year, we were still in what most people would refer to as the “honeymoon phase” of our marriage. Except, for us, the first three and a half months of our marriage felt more like a prison sentence to me.
I would work from home and he would pick the same fight with me about how I cared too much about my job and worked too much. I would head to the newsroom to write a story or shoot a video, and he’d insist on coming with me to make sure I didn’t flirt with anyone while I was away from him. He would see me texting with my boss, co-workers or colleagues and accuse me of having affairs with them.
We would go out with friends, and he would call me a whore and every other name in the book if someone smiled at me and I didn’t immediately walk across the bar to tell them to stop.
During SEC Media Days, he called and texted me every hour each day because he didn’t like the idea of me spending time at a hotel with tons of coaches, athletes and other sports writers. When I wasn’t able to answer, I received nasty voicemails telling me about what a horrible person and wife I was. The insults and emotional abuse were non-stop. And while the obvious answer was to walk away, I was terrified of what he would do if I did walk away. I took all his threats seriously because I knew what he was capable of.
We met at Arby’s in Lake Mary, Florida, where I worked throughout high school and he worked shortly after moving to the area from Puerto Rico. It wasn’t long before we started spending every day together.
When we weren’t together, we were on the phone with each other. He listened to me and understood me in a way that no one ever had. I was the product of a disastrous and abusive relationship, so I avoided boyfriends. Instead, I focused on my friends, volleyball, and my various roles with my high school newspaper and yearbook. But somewhere along the way, I fell for Chasten.
When I moved away for college, I told him I wanted to focus on school and volleyball and that I had to completely cut him off to stay focused. I did, and I thrived throughout college. At Delta State University, I was the editor of the school paper, The Delta Statement, worked full time for the local weekly, The Cleveland News Leader, spent time working for CBS affiliate, WXVT-TV, and managed to graduate a year early. The next year, I earned my master’s from Syracuse University’s Newhouse School.
That led me to covering the Florida State Seminoles for the Tallahassee Democrat for three and a half years before I started covering SEC football for AL.com in 2014.
Meanwhile, from the time I said goodbye to Chasten in 2007, to the time I reconnected with him in 2015, he had spent most of his time in prison. But when I talked to him, he vowed that he had learned from his bad decisions and was ready to be a better man. I wasn’t one to fall for most people’s crap. But Chasten wasn’t most people to me. After a few weeks of talking on the phone, it felt like old times. But this time, we were older, and he wanted a commitment from me. So, he moved to Hoover, Alabama, to be with me.
Not long after he moved in with me, he questioned how committed I was to him. Having felt somewhat guilty for not being there for him when he was making one poor decision after another, I wanted to prove that I was going to be there for him this time around. So, we got engaged. When that wasn’t enough, we took a detour on the way to the gym one day and ended up at the courthouse. We walked out of the courthouse, in our gym clothes, and married to each other. The thing about him knowing me better than anyone else when I was 16 years old was still true when I was 25. The problem was, he knew that questioning my commitment to something I was clearly committed to would frustrate me and make me want to further prove my commitment.
After we got married, I thought he would stop questioning how committed I was to him. Instead, it – predictably – got worse. That is when questions about my commitment turned into an all-out attack on my character. Being around him made me angry, frustrated and I suddenly felt trapped in a mess of my own making. But more than anything, I felt like I was on an island.
He managed to alienate me from my sister, Jeanette, because she was a voice of reason whenever I mentioned our relationship. So, he would find ways to manufacture fights between us. Eventually, we stopped fighting … or talking at all. With my best friend, Kate, he used a different approach. It was more of a kill-her-with-kindness tactic. We would all FaceTime together on a regular basis, and occasionally, he’d reach out to her on his own to voice his “concern” with how much I worked or my anger towards him. The way he treated me made some of my other friends so uncomfortable that they increasingly came around less.
In the early hours of my 26th birthday, we fought about my travel schedule for the upcoming football season. He told me, if I went to all those games, he was going to leave me, take everything I had, and do whatever he had to do to make sure I no longer had a job to go to. That morning, during the car ride from the pool outside what was to be our new home, back to our current apartment, he kept telling me how I had made a huge mistake choosing my career over our marriage.
As I turned into our complex, he lunged at me. I wasn’t sure what he was going to do. So, I ran off the road into a tree as a distraction. After I hit the tree, he got out of the car and walked to our apartment. I just sat there looking at my Jetta and looking at the tree I hit. I had no idea how I was going to explain any of this to anyone. I just knew there was no way in hell I could go home that night.
There was a half bottle of vodka in the backseat left over from what was supposed to be a relaxing day at the pool.
I grabbed the bottle, opened it, and quickly downed it. As I sat there, I thought about how things continued to get worse. At the time, I couldn’t imagine what worse would have even looked like. I popped the trunk and grabbed a bottle of almost-gone wine – slugging it down like it was Gatorade and I had just finished a marathon. I was pretty sure that I had officially hit rock bottom. So, I walked to a gas station that was a block or two away. I grabbed a bottle of wine and headed for the register. I was told that they couldn’t sell me alcohol because it was too late.
What happened next honestly felt like an out-of-body experience: I grabbed a gas can, lighter and asked for a gallon of gas.
I went outside, filled up the gas can, walked back to the car and called Chasten. I told him he could have all my stuff, if he just left me alone. His response was, “F— you,” and something about making the rest of my life hell. I told him I was done and couldn’t do this anymore. I told him that I bought gas and a lighter and that I really did love him and that I had tried everything I could to prove it to him. I told him maybe he’d realize that one day. I hung up the phone, poured the gasoline on myself and produced a flame.
I remember the feeling as the fire burned my thigh. The next thing I remember was Chasten running towards the car yelling. He grabbed me out of the car and told me to take my clothes off and roll on the ground. My very next memory was of me in the ICU at UAB Hospital, and it was November. I was on tons of drugs, in a hell of a lot of pain and couldn’t speak. But I was so damn glad to be alive.
Throughout my 15 months in the hospital, Chasten was my primary support system. He changed my dressings, helped me through physical therapy and was usually by my side pre- and post-op for more than 80 surgeries. His support through everything confused me. Then, I was discharged home into his care. I struggled to stand up by myself and moving around took a lot out of me.
During the day, he mostly left me in a recliner to pee and crap on myself. At night, he would come home and down six to 12 beers while sitting in front of me and mocking me or telling me what a dumb b—- I was. On his days off, he would help me stand up and get over to the stairs in our house. He’d tell me I needed to go up and down them a few times a day. I am all for challenging myself, but going up them once would take so much out of me physically that I sometimes was so dizzy that I couldn’t see as I was trying to go back down them. The entire time, he’d shout insults at me about how slow I moved or how lazy I was.
At some point, I had enough. I called the hospital and my mom and told them I thought something was wrong. I wasn’t sure if there was something wrong, but I had to get out of that house with him. When I got back to the hospital my surgeon told me that I was malnourished, my organs were shutting down and that I was dying. I was re-admitted to the ICU, given multiple blood transfusions and hooked back up to a feeding tube. That night, so much became clear to me. I knew I had to face Chasten and live with whatever repercussions came from me walking away from our marriage.
The week before I was discharged, I called my sister to reconcile. She flew to Alabama and put some of my stuff in storage. When I got out, I moved to Miami and rented a house with her and my two nephews. Now, I live three miles away from them, and run my own business. Most of the free time I do have is spent at the gym trading sets with her or at one of my nephews’ basketball games. I not only have my life back, but I have a fuller life because I was given a second chance, and it has provided me with so much clarity.
Sharing this story with you is one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. I wasn’t raised to be vulnerable or talk about my feelings. I was raised to always act like everything was fine, even when everything was a disaster. In my family, being vulnerable roughly translated to being weak. I have always encouraged my friends to confide in me or talk through whatever they were going through with a professional. But I was always too prideful to do the same. Eventually, my failure to address things I struggled with caught up with me in a major way. From a young age, I have had severe anxiety, obsessive-compulsive tendencies and impulsively problems. Neither I, nor my parents ever publicized that because we all thought I was strong enough to figure it out on my own.
But being strong isn’t about pretending like your problems aren’t problems. True strength is being brave enough to combat your problems head on, even if that means that some see you as less than you truly are because of your struggles.
Prior to the fire, I was taking Effexor for my anxiety, OCD and impulse-control disorder. For a while, it really helped. But when it stopped helping, I was left with all my issues on top of an emotionally abusive relationship. I am no longer taking pharmaceuticals. But my anxiety, OCD and ICD are impacting my life less than ever because I work diligently at managing them every single day. And I am no longer too proud to ask for help if I need it. There are so many misconceptions about suicide and mental health. My experience is just one experience, but I can honestly say that I’ve never thought about harming myself a day in my life, until I did. I broke.
The thing we need to better understand as a society – especially those of us who were raised playing sports – is that mental health issues are major issues, just like a broken bone or a torn ligament. If you ignore the issues, they don’t go away. They must be dealt with at some point or they only get worse.
Tuesday, I was at a hotel bar when a woman asked me if I heard about Kate Spade’s suicide. Before I could even answer, she started talking about how Spade had everything and how there couldn’t possibly be anything she was going through that would justify her taking her own life.
“You never know what someone’s going through,” I said. The woman went on and on naming things the fashion designer had, to point to why her suicide made no sense. Suicide shouldn’t ever make sense because there is never a good reason for someone to take their own life. But, people get stuck and for one reason or another don’t feel comfortable getting help. Mental breakdowns aren’t about what someone has, doesn’t have, or appears to have. They’re about how someone’s brain processes what they’re dealing with. We live in a world where everyone can put their best photos on their Instagram, Twitter and Facebook pages and use a keyboard to make their life out to be something much more perfect and put together than it really is.
I’ve undergone more than 80 surgeries for burns to more than 85 percent of my body and I haven’t changed my Twitter avatar in more than three years (until now). The night leading up to the fire, I Tweeted this: “While I labor poolside, my amazing husband is making things happen on the grill. #footballandfood” with a picture of hamburgers, a hot dog and my computer.
Just a couple hours before the fire, I was hosting a live chat for work while watching the Ohio State-Virginia Tech football game. As someone who is still learning every day about how to be more open with my flaws, I have found that others sharing their mental health battles has made me feel empowered to do the same.
Hopefully my battle, and ability to come out better on the other end, can help someone struggling somewhere to understand that pride means nothing if it takes you down with it. So, exercise true strength and ask for help. I say this as someone who not long ago was part of the problem when it came to mental health. Now, I am doing whatever I can to promote healthy dialogue on the never-sexy, but always-important topic of mental health.
Natalie is a journalist with nearly 15 years of experience and more than five years of top leadership experience in sports media. Most of her time in the business has been spent reporting on some of college football’s most successful programs. Currently, she is an enterprise reporter covering culture, diversity and inclusion for The State Journal-Register in Springfield, Illinois. The former collegiate volleyball player is the president and founder of The Mental Game 501(c)(3). The nonprofit organization works to normalize conversations about mental health in the sports world.
The National Domestic Violence Hotline