In this episode, Carrie interviews Heather Palacios, founder of Wondherful, Inc, about suicide prevention. Heather opens up about her lifelong battle with mental health issues, including suicidal thoughts, and how it inspired her to create Wondherful.

Real-life experiences shared by Heather Palacios, highlighting the impact of suicidal thoughts at different stages of life

Practical strategies for suicide prevention discussed in the episode

Insights into the importance of support and resources in saving lives

The role of faith, community, and self-care in maintaining mental wellness

How Wondherful’s tailored life boxes cater to various struggles, including anxiety, trauma, loneliness, addiction, and grief

www.wondherful.com

Check out related episode:

Transcript:

Hello and welcome to Hope for Anxiety and OCD. My name is Carrie Bock, a licensed professional counselor in Tennessee and the host of this podcast. Today, I have an interview with Heather Palacios, who is the founder of Wondherful. We’re going to hear about her story of her own mental health struggles and what led her to start and continue. It’s just grown and grown and grown. 

Carrie: We’re glad that you’re here today.

Heather: Thank you for having me, Carrie. You’re amazing.

Carrie: Thank you. I wanted to hear a little bit about your own journey with mental health. When did that start for you? How did that show up? What did it look like?

Heather: Great question. It started when I was eight. That was a minute ago because I’m 50. It started in 1981, and at eight years old, I started having thoughts of suicide, but then I actually penned it in a letter and mailed it to my grandparents. You’re the first to know this. My mom and dad found that letter recently and mailed it to me.

I’ll be using that as a prop, especially when I speak to students, but yes, it started when I was eight and has been a struggle for me up till today.

Carrie: What caused you to get to that point where they’re challenging social relationships you were dealing with in elementary school or things going on at home?

Heather: I’ve struggled with suicide for the entire timeline of my life from eight to the current, but I haven’t been in the same season, obviously, this entire time. As an eight, nine, ten-year-old, it was moving schools all the time and brutal bullying. I have a wild imagination that remembers very traumatic details. That’s always corroborated by all the journals that I’ve kept all these years. The bullying was intense and would drive anybody to want to take their life.

Carrie: Kids can be so mean and cruel and they don’t realize how that affects other kids and students. Were you bullied in elementary school and did that continue in middle school?

Heather: It started when I was eight and went through high school, but I think it was only being bullied that made me want to take my life as a child. I think as I moved into my teen years, it was being bullied, but it was also compounded by just didn’t love myself and didn’t see other options. My brain has never been able to compute other options. Other than just take your life when there’s any kind of crisis or trauma, but it was pretty purely bullying as a kid.

Carrie: As you got older, how did this constant suicidal thoughts affect you as a young adult? And, uh, did you have suicide attempts during those periods?

Heather: Yes, great question. I have attempted suicide three times and had the plan countless times.

I have been Baker acted, which in Florida’s mandatory 72 hour confinement in a psychiatric ward and was hospitalized.

Carrie: I was just wondering how things affected you as a young adult. What were some things that were going on there?

Heather: As I said, I’ve battled with suicide over every season of a person’s life, barring elderly senior citizens, because I’m not there yet.

As a child, as an adolescent, as a high school student, as a college student, as a young career, as a wife, as a mom in a pandemic and with unexpected grief, those are pretty much the mile markers in my life where I have attempted suicide or wanted to. The young adult season was a lot around relationships. Dating and being with a guy for five years and him saying, after five years, “I’ll never marry you. You’re not the kind that I would want to marry.” And that just set me off.  I took a bottle of pills and tried to take my life. I saw that as the only way out of that.

Carrie: There would be these big stressful events and whenever we have stress in our life, that tends to increase our symptoms so that makes a lot of sense. What would you say was your lowest point rock bottom? You know, the only place to go is up from here.

Heather: The lowest point would have been July 30th, 2000. That was when I had been married for one year to a pastor, which made me a pastor’s wife. I just couldn’t, after a year into the marriage, reconcile kind of being the crazy lady, but being married to a pastor. A new divorce wasn’t an option for a pastor. Again, my brain only saw suicide as my way out, and that would be a gruesome attempt where my husband showed up to the scene and was unable to stop me. The 911 first responders surrounded my car and were unable to stop me. I had become manic to the point of supernatural strength, almost like a rabid animal, unstoppable.

They were forced to tranquilize me and knock me out so that they could strap me down on a gurney and rush me to the hospital where they treated my injuries, and then they shipped me off to a psychiatric ward. It was mandatory. I didn’t have a say in the matter. I was put in isolation in the psych ward on July 30th, 2000.

When you’re in isolation in a psych ward, I had vomit on me. I had blood on me. They didn’t feed me. They didn’t clean me up. It was deplorable conditions. This was 24 years ago. It was the lowest point because not only was I locked in isolation as a pastor’s wife, but as a failed suicide attempting pastor’s wife.

That was such a low, low that I didn’t even think there would be an up and had actually pretty much determined that once they released me from the psych ward, I would do it again. And I would succeed this time because in my mind, there was nowhere else to go with the coming together of being a pastor’s wife and failing at killing yourself.

Carrie: This sounds like an immense amount of shame that you were carrying for having mental health issues in the church as a Christian. Also, lso interestingly, like shame that you weren’t successful at what you set out to do.

Heather: Yes and you don’t have this Facebook group or women’s golf club society of people like me.

There was nobody, not only just in my circle, but in, to my knowledge, the country that understood what it was like to perpetually want to die, but not be able to because you’re married to a pastor. So it was a lonely existence and shameful.

Carrie: How did you go from that to starting Wondherful?

Heather: Obviously, God keeps me alive despite my efforts. Finally, once I was able to get medication, get into a regular psychologist, and maintain that to today. I identify that I have a chronic weakness in my brain, which I don’t distinguish from any other chronic weakness in any other organ in the body, so I embrace that and I take care of it. I would, if I had been in an accident, rendered to a wheelchair.

That has opened up a lot of doors—just my candidness about that, willing to talk about it—and that launched a lot of opportunities to go and speak, share the story. But it was during COVID, during 2020; I was cut off from being able to go to people. You know, our country was in a shutdown.

Carrie: Right.

Heather: By this time, I’m 20 years into using my weakness to help others, but I couldn’t go to people and they were reaching out to me. They were dying by the dozens by suicide and overdose.

Carrie: Yes. COVID was huge. 

Heather: Yes. Huge and I’m not hearing about people are reaching out to me because of COVID and them dying of it. They’re reaching out to me because of the pandemic and they didn’t want to live anymore.

In my dining room here, where I am right now, some friends and I started just shipping what I would normally take in person when I get asked to go visit people in psychiatric wards, detoxes, sober living homes, hospitals, ICU units, funerals. I would always take what I call a “life box,” which is all the things I’ve needed to still be here. Instead of taking them, we just started shipping them. It became a nonprofit and we’re three years in now. We’ve had to move offices twice. I think in three years since its inception, we’ve done almost 15, 000 life boxes to every state and 15 countries.

Carrie: Talk to us about that process of moving from being so ashamed because I work with a lot of people who really struggle over having mental health issues.

As a Christian in the church community, going from that to being able to be open and allowing God to use your story, was that like a process that God really worked with you on? Or as you started sharing it, you saw the benefits of sharing it?

Heather: It was so instantaneous that the leadership was like, Whoa, whoa, whoa, let’s have you heal a little bit.

I remember getting out of the psych ward and I had kind of made a deal with God in the psych ward. That’s all I had to talk to. I mean, I was in isolation. I was a threat to other people so they wouldn’t put me in a room with other people. I just lied there and it was like, talk to my demons or talk to God.

I was like, “God, if you could just get me out of here because it was deplorable.” It was everything you’d think of in a horror movie for a psych ward. But I was like, “If you could get me out of here, I’ll dedicate the rest of my life to help people not end up here. “ 

I was able to be discharged a little bit earlier than I was slated to be. I took that as a sign from God and I wanted to own up to my end of the commitment. I just wrote out my story from that experience, got on medicine, got under the supervision of a psychologist, and then went to the church leadership and said, I want to share my story. They were like,”Okay, not yet. Let’s have you get a little bit better.”

I waited a year and proved myself worthy of being able to share my story because I really wanted to. They put me up on stage and I shared my story about a year after getting out of the cyborg.

Carrie: What are some things that you do on a day-to-day basis that just really help and supports your mental health moving forward?

You said, this is a chronic issue. It’s not something that has just gone away. It’s something that you’ve struggled with for a long time. What are some of your strategies or things that you do to stay healthy?

Heather: I love it that you asked that because my formula is unique, but it’s working because I’m still alive and I’m so glad you asked it.

It has seven parts. It’s medication, which “certain Baptist circles love it when I say that.” it’s medication, it’s Christian counseling, it’s journaling. I even have my journal here to show you.

Carrie: Awesome.

Heather: Reading my Bible, regular church attendance. Church regularly is a free full fill up on an empty tank for me, outdoor activity, knowing my worth and having boundaries.

Carrie: Wow. So good. I’m sure you could write a book on all of those principles because I think that they’re each important. I like what you said about valuing church attendance. You feel like there is something that that does for your spirit and the sense of being in Christian community. 

Have you found some strong community through the church that’s been supportive for you?

Heather: Yes. I mean, we underestimate what the church can do for our minds and God teed it up pretty well. He said, Love me with all of your body, heart, mind, and strength.” Where do we love him tangibly? Where do we love him audibly and visually in church? 

I feel like it’s never returned void for me. If I show up and love God in his house for an hour on Sunday, he fills my cup to the overflow, which gives me the fuel to go the next week.

Carrie: I love that you have boundaries in there too because that’s something that a lot of Christians struggle with. We think that we have to be all things to all people, to bend over backwards, to constantly be volunteering for every single thing that has a need, and we can get burnout and not be in a healthy place mentally and emotionally from not setting good boundaries.

We’re allowing other people to speak into your life that really have no business and no need to be speaking into your life. It’s like, I don’t really need to take that from you.

Heather: Right? I mean, I take my cues from Jesus for a lot of these parts of my formula that I follow. There were thousands of people that needed him critically. They were mentally psychotic. They were spiritually lost. They were medically incurable. I mean, these are thousands of people who he loves that needed him. Yes, he did walk away from them after a certain point to go alone and be with the Father. I take him at his word literally and I understand that the harvest is plenty of people that might need you or me or the church or the pastor or the therapist, but the workers are few.

The Bible says Jesus doesn’t say pray for the harvest. He says, pray for the workers. He modeled that by showing that boundary that there are still thousands more that need me today, but I’ve reached my limit. I’ve done what I can for today. Now I need to go refresh.

Carrie: You talked about sending out life boxes.

What different kinds of life boxes do you send out to individuals?

Heather: Good question. Okay. I actually have one here. Now this is a mini life box and we use the mini life boxes for traveling and events and bulk orders because it costs less. We’ve shrank everything that we would normally send to an individual down into a mini size, but we do life boxes for anything, for anybody, anywhere.

We curate it to their plight. Plus, I’ve discovered suicide is not in a vacuum, it is not in a book. Anybody, anywhere can give up over anything. I know that personally. I didn’t try to take my life because of bullying as a married woman. There’s always different reasons. At Wondherful, we receive these requests through our website.

We not only all the options that people can have a curated life box for, but we have a big comment section because if we don’t have it listed, they can put in the comment what their plight is, what their pain is, what their despair is, and we’ll curate it for them. Specifically, the ones that are listed in the most popular are anxiety way up there. Trauma, loneliness, addiction, suicide attempt, grief ans depression would be the ones that are the most requested.

Carrie: That’s incredible that you’re able to personally tailor those to each individual and what you feel like their needs are. What’s in the box that you have there?

Heather: In a life box, the presentation is very important to me. Our team is awesome because they know my heart that I see the value of every single person, even if they don’t just now driving home. I saw the guy begging for money at the intersection and I prayed for him. I saw him because I saw him as someone that God created. This guy begging for money. He wasn’t aborted.

He wasn’t a miscarriage. God wanted him here. And so he has value in and of itself with that. So the box’s presentation has to show value to that person. We take it seriously. Like we don’t just throw crap in a box. The girls know like this, this would drive the team nuts that this tissue is wrinkled here.  Take out the tissue, put a different piece in because the person opening this Carrie, this might be the only time someone somewhere has expressed their value. They open it up. This specific one is for loneliness. 

After the surgeon general came out with a report saying loneliness in our country is an epidemic. We decided to add loneliness to the drop down options for a life box. The first thing that they see when they open it up is, What the heck is this that I just got? Because a lot of these are requested by other people. 

Carrie: Right. They’re like, “Oh, I got a box.”

Heather: “What the heck? Who’s stalking me?

It’s got a QR code and it goes right to a video of me and I share my story and explain why they received this and then if they don’t want to, they can’t do QR codes. It says it in text right here. That’s the first thing they see, but the second thing they see is a handwritten card. 

Somebody on our team wrote them a card. We’ve had people actually frame this and send us a picture that they framed it. We always include the 988 because I am assuming that whatever this person’s going through, I need to hook them up with resources that I am not qualified to give them.

This came inspired by a male executive, he said, I had your list of some life versus that I could keep in my wallet. I would. So I was like, that’s it. So we have wonderful with life versus that guys can keep then a notepad, a devotion on loneliness and Rick Warren. What on earth am I here for? This really is covers every reason for suicide. This goes in every box. A refrigerator magnet with 988. These are the staples because I spoke into this, I said, these are the things I’ve needed when I’m struggling with wanting to give up. I need a stress ball.

Carrie: Yes.

Heather: I need practical things. I cry a lot, so I need tissue. My lips get dry because I cry a lot, so I need chapstick so these go in. I have mints because I am crying. I do have probably bad breath. I also just need to suck on something that’s savory or sweet to get the starkness in my mind at least freshened up with some mint, right? They’re also called life savers. So let’s play on words. There you go. A Bible and a journal and a pen.

Those are essential. Those are non negotiable. They go in every box. This devotion says, “I just want to die.” It’s a faith based devotion and then I put like an herbal mask because this is a female box. Okay. We want her to feel comfort and then a staple that every single one gets is a never-give up wristband, inspired by my youngest brother who died last year and struggled with suicide like I did and finally got him.

I remember one conversation I had with Chris, he was so ashamed of his scars on his wrists from years of attempting suicide. Then we get a lot of, Sober Living Homes. I speak to a lot of addicts. They have so many track scars on their wrists. There’s a lot of shame with that, Carrie. Whether it’s a suicide attempt or a track scar, your wrist can be a point of shame.

I was like, “Not anymore.” They have a wristband that says never give up, that is going to be able to go over their wrists. Hopefully they’ll see that and not be shamed of their scars.

Carrie: Yes, it’s a positive reminder to keep going. Man, that must have hit you really hard your brother dying from suicide.

Heather: Yes. Very painful. It’s been my most recent biggest test for not wanting to give up myself, which is a whole nother podcast, but grief is a beast.

Carrie: Well, what do you do when you have suicidal thoughts come up now?  Beause a lot of people that are listening to this podcast, whether it’s suicidal thoughts or they have obsessions that pop it in their mind that they don’t want to have there.

How do you handle those? I think there’s a lot of different directions we can take our mind and in our body and our spirit when those happen.

Heather: Well, I have to make sure that I’m doing my seven things- the formula. I have to make sure I’m doing those, but in a moment I can shift gears and a moment I can go from wanting to live to wanting to die.

The first thing that I do and the first thing that I tell everybody to do, whether they’re children, adults, Jamaican, Puerto Rican, or anything is you get to call someone. I mean, that’s backed up with research, but that’s also backed up with Jesus. Again, I take my cues from him in his darkest mental hour, where he was in such hopelessness and despair that his body was reacting by bleeding sweat.

He called somebody. Now he had followers in the thousands. He had a tribe of 12, but in his darkest hour, he called someone and the text says in the gospels that he called three, Peter, James, and John. I take my cues from him and I call someone and I actually have three in case one doesn’t answer.  That’s good. That’s helpful. My first thing is I need to call somebody.

Carrie: That’s good. It’s Definitely a good advice for everyone. 

I wanted to ask you one more question before we got into some stories about how life boxes have impacted people. I know a lot of people struggle with journaling. What types of things do you journal about?

Do you journal about thoughts and feelings or do you journal prayers? What kind of things do you journal about?

Heather: I don’t follow a guide. I follow my head. I have journals from when I was eight up until today. I’ve kept them all. Yeah. So I got a lot of journals. There’s never a pattern, but my brain doesn’t operate in a pattern.

Like I said, I could be wearing a smiley sweatshirt, doing this podcast, beautiful South Florida weather. And by tonight something can happen and I can want to die because I don’t have routine in my head. I don’t have routine in my journaling. What is important is that I journal simply because I can wake up or I can go to bed with all this stuff in my head, or I can put it on paper and just get it out. That’s why I’m always advocating journaling.

Carrie: Yeah, that’s good. Tell us about some stories of hope because this is hope for anxiety and OCD. What are some stories of hope of how life boxes have impacted different people that you’ve heard of?

Heather: Oh man, anxiety. We get so many for anxiety and I’ve had that. My pendulum swings between depression and anxiety. That’s a real thing and it really is a struggle beause it manifests in your mind and your body in such an intense way. There’s 15, 000 light boxes we’ve done. There’s so many stories, but one in particular is during COVID a friend of mine, she’s a homosexual Jewish addict, just had so much anxiety during COVID that she became suicidal.

Now she’s got so many issues, but reached out for a life box. We sent her an anxiety, suicide prevention, life box. She asked her coworker to record her opening up the life box. I can’t put it into words what it was like to see this homosexual Jewish addict open up this life box with anxiety resources and a Bible and a journal and all these things, and she was weeping, but more importantly, she was living and still to this day.

Not only did she continue to live and I don’t take the credit for that. That’s God and her and things that I’ll never know on earth, but she still lives to this day and is a catalyst between us and our life boxes and all the addicts. that she does life with. She’s continued to live and she’s continued to use these life boxes as ways of helping people that are struggling just like her.

Carrie: That’s awesome. If somebody’s listening to this and they want to request a life box for somebody or if they feel like, hey, I need that myself. Like I’m on the edge here. I’m really, really struggling. How do they do that?

Heather: Well, it’s easy. You just go to wondherful.com.

Carrie: Yeah. We’ll put that link in there too. We’ll put the link in our show notes if anybody’s just listening on the audio here.

Heather: You click on Lifebox and you can request it for yourself or you can request it for someone you’re concerned about and we will curate it and priority ship it. If you’re a really rich person, feel free to make a donation for your Lifebox request. We do send them out for free to everybody.

Carrie: That’s awesome. That’s really incredible. Well, thank you so much for being vulnerable, sharing your story and talking to us about this organization. I think it’s so important that we talk about the hard subjects that we talk about. things like suicide that people are struggling with and letting them know there is hope and there is help and there are people that care about you and want to let you know that you are valuable and you are important and we want you here.

Heather: Yes, we do. No matter who you are, no matter how hard it is, No matter how many people don’t understand, if you wake up breathing, that’s your proof to keep going. There’s a reason you’re still breathing. That should be enough encouragement for all of us. 

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Hope for Anxiety and OCD is a production of By the Well Counseling.

Our show is hosted by Carrie Bock, a licensed Professional Counselor in Tennessee. Opinions given by our guests are their own and do not necessarily reflect the views of myself or By the Well Counseling. Our Original Music is by Brandon Mangrum. 

Until next time, may you be comforted by God’s great love for you.