Increasing the stigma?

This comment appeared in my e-mail box this weekend from someone using the nickname Oedipa Maas, which is the name of a character in the Thomas Pynchon novel “The Crying of Lot 49.” (Never read it, but I note that it contains at least one suicide.) I can’t promise I’ll approve all anonymous comments such as this one, but here’s an idea of what some people might be thinking:

You are a horrible writer, a lazy researcher and are only increasing the stigma toward mental illness with this amateur blog.

Stop kidding yourself. You do not have the credentials to be using this type of rhetoric. If you really were a journalist, you would understand that you must remain objective in your search to tackle the huge issue of suicide. But you’re not. You’re trivializing it and placing it into the realm of a ‘news story’–something where you interview the subjects and then report on their discussion.

Seriously, if you have been shaped by suicide, you are absolutely not objective and thus must frame this discussion in the realm of the subjective, not seek out people to ‘interview’.

A smart person would know this. I don’t think you’re a smart person. Discussions on this topic need to happen organically, not force them to happen through interviews.

Get thee to a University. There is much more learning you need.

Reading about a runner and attempt survivor

It’s always a kind of relief when I come across someone else who talks openly about a suicide attempt. It’s another chip away at isolation, which lurks way too easily around a subject like this. I know that an untold number of people are talking on anonymous online forums, but for me that lacks a connection.

The latest discovery came last night as I looked through the new issue of Runner’s World. The cover story is about its readers and what running means to them, and it includes a young North Carolina woman. The story says Amanda once locked herself in her college dorm room and took a bottle of Tylenol PM. She passed out but woke up and got herself to a hospital. She calls it her “episode.” The story says she took up running during her recovery and is doing far better now, with a marriage, law studies and one completed marathon. “Running didn’t fix me, but it’s my reward for the difficult and scary work of fighting through my depression,” she says.

I’m glad she said that. I started running a couple of years ago while I was learning that sadness might be something I had to deal with instead of try to ignore. Running sneaked right up on me. One day I decided I needed to make the loop around Central Park and had my boyfriend drop me off at a sporting goods store in my socks. That’s how pressing it was. I bought shoes and headed straight to the park and half ran-, half-walked around.

I wish I could say running has fixed me, but what it did was give me a focus and a way to blow off assorted frustrations. I learned that I felt better, and frankly less guilty, after a run than when I skipped it. Even when a day sucked, there was something fundamentally right about taking care of my body. Running was also a good mix of solitude and socializing, fluid enough for those moments when you’d rather break off and be alone.

Finally, running _ and I don’t know why I’m talking in the past tense, since I’m back at it again _ brought me one of the best days of my life, when I got up from a largely sleepless night and ran the 26.2-mile party known as the New York City Marathon. The crowds really do carry you along. It was the rare experience when I knew, from start to finish, that I was going to do what I set out to do.

We all have something. We just have to find it.

I’m looking for more people to speak with, by the way. Let me know.

‘Our little songbird has flown the nest’

Ever since Trish Lane told me during our talk about a blunt Reader’s Digest article that convinced her that suicide wasn’t an option, I wanted to find it. It took just seconds. Several websites have posted it as a warning, or a plea. I’ll paste it here, and soon enough someone will let me know whether I’m infringing on copyright and need to take it down.

One note: I was curious about the article’s author as well and wanted to speak with her. What responses did she get over the years? What more would she like to say about her work and the people she met? However, Renee T. Lucero passed away in 2010, according to an obituary on the website of The Spokesman-Review newspaper in Washington state. “Our little songbird has flown the nest,” the obituary says. It does not mention the cause of death, but it does say she was a nurse and published an article on suicide prevention. Here is the text of that article, called “Before You Kill Yourself”:

You’ve decided to do it. Life is impossible. Suicide is your way out.

Fine — but before you kill yourself, there are things you should know. I am a psychiatric nurse, and I see the results of suicide — when it works and, more often, when it doesn’t. Consider, before you act, these facts:

Suicide is usually not successful. You think you know ways to guarantee it? Ask the 25-year-old who tried to electrocute himself. He lived. But both his arms are gone.

What about jumping? Ask John. He used to be intelligent with an engaging sense of humor. That was before he leaped from a building. Now he’s brain-damaged and will always need care. He staggers and has seizures. He lives in a fog. Worst of all, he knows he used to be normal.

What about pills? Ask the 12-year-old with extensive liver damage from an overdose. Have you ever seen anyone die of liver damage? You turn yellow. It’s a hard way to go.

What about a gun? Ask the 24-year-old who shot himself in the head. Now he drags one leg, has a useless arm and has no vision or hearing on one side. He lived through his “foolproof” suicide. You might too.

Who will clean your blood off the carpet or scrape your brains from the ceiling? Commercial cleaning crews may refuse that job — but someone has to do it.

Who will have to cut you down from where you hanged yourself or identify your bloated body after you’ve drowned? Your mother? Your wife? Your son?

The carefully worded “loving” suicide note is no help. Those who loved you will never completely recover. They’ll feel regret and an unending pain.

Suicide is contagious. Look around at your family. Look closely at that 4-year-old playing with his cars on the rug. Kill yourself tonight and he may do it 10 years from now.

You do have other choices. There are people who can help you through this crisis. Call a hotline. Call a friend. Call your minister or priest. Call a doctor or the hospital. Call the police.

They will tell you that there’s hope. Maybe you’ll find it in the mail tomorrow. Or in a phone call this weekend. But what you’re seeking could be just a minute, a day or a month away.

You say you still don’t want to be stopped? Still want to do it? Then I may see you in a psychiatric ward later. And we’ll work with whatever you have left.

Talking with Kristina Yates

I recently had the chance to speak with Kristina Yates, who is a therapist and a MindFreedom member and runs a business boarding dogs for others. (I’m beginning to see a trend with people on this blog and pets.)

We spoke while she was riding back from the conference of the International Society of Ethical Psychology & Psychiatry. The society is at psychintegrity.org.

Kristina started by mentioning that she had been in the documentary “We Don’t Live Under Normal Conditions,” where a half-dozen people talked among themselves about depression, suicide and other issues. It was made years ago, she said, but its issues are even more relevant today. The site for the film is here.

What made you want to talk with me?

I appreciate the chance to tell my story. Suicide is an important issue. One of those hush-hush topics. Terrifying, painful, overwhelming.

You just came from a conference about psychology and psychiatry. Is it a place where the topic can be talked about more openly?

I think people don’t talk about it. I guess I could ask people. Unfortunately, (Thomas) Szasz’ new book wasn’t there. (The book is “Suicide Prohibition.”)

I have a friend in a wheelchair from a suicide attempt, and she’s pretty open about it. She’ll tell anybody. I think, however, it scares people.

How can that change?

I believe in talking. It we can create a safe place where this subject can be talked about confidentially.

Is my approach with this blog the right way to go?

If I talk about my story, they might start talking. The coming out creates an opportunity for others to come out.

Tell me about your experience.

I first attempted suicide when I was 14. I was very, very depressed. My mother took a lot of medication of all sorts. She really was a prescription drug addict. I took all the pills in the house. It really was not very smart, but I was 14. I didn’t ever go to the hospital. I threw up in the night. We didn’t really talk about it. And she had to have known.

I had these depressions every year that ended in a suicide attempt. Every year of high school. And the second time I took several bottles of over-the-counter sleeping medication. Again, I threw up in the night and in the next morning I was hallucinating. My mother thought I was sleepwalking. She took me to the hospital, but it was too late to pump my stomach. So I wasn’t being very successful. My depressions eventually left on their own and I never told anybody about my attempts.

The third time, I had a small pistol. I took it and pointed it at my chest and pulled the trigger. At that moment, someone came to the door. It turned out that the gun was set up so that the first shot was blank. It scared me so bad. And someone came to the door, so I dealt with them. I didn’t try it again.

Another year went by. I was real desperate now. I took a razor blade to my wrist. I cut across it. I cut everything, blood vessels, nerves, tendons. I didn’t die! I was like, “Oh great, what do we do?” I got my hand sewn up, four hours in surgery. They kept me 48 hours in the hospital, then let me go.

My depression mainly ended when I left home. I tried suicide two other times when I was about 20 years old, I had a relationship breakup that was very traumatic for me and became very depressed. I tried to rig something to gas myself at the stove. But just as I was about to lose consciousness I heard voices of people who loved me calling me back. The other time, I are rat poison but didn’t even get sick.

My body is pretty resilient. There was no damage.

How old are you now?

61.

How did those feelings fade out?

The depression basically left once I left home. I’ve been depressed to varying degrees off and on, not really chronically.

In my mid-20s, I traveled for three years and traveled overland to India on $3,000, which I had saved from waitressing. Traveling alone as a woman in the mid-70s was very stressful. I spent a year and a half in India and studied meditation. When I was about to leave India to go to Japan to teach English, I was under a lot of stress. And very scared. Evidentally I had a psychotic break. Nothing like this had ever happened before, or since. I was hospitalized and given a lot of forced treatment, including electroshock. I’ve never taken psychotropic drugs unless they were forced on me.

I think my emotional problems were related to my home life and my relationship with my mom.

And you never talked with her about it?

My mother never talked much about me anyway. She had a lot of problems. I had no father. It was just the two of us. No, we never talked about it. I got some counseling from a minister who she sent me to. We were poor. People from my class background in Tennessee in the mid-60s didn’t use the mental health system or go to psychiatrists. Essentially there was little help for me or my mother.

Who did you become and who are you now?

I’m a part-time marriage and family therapist. I also have a business boarding small dogs at my home.

You mentioned that you’re an activist.

In the past, I’ve done street theater with MindFreedom. In grad school, I came out about my own trauma in the mental health system. David Oaks of MindFreedom International encouraged me to organize a protest at an American Psychiatric Association meeting in San Francisco.

I’ve also performed my personal story as a psychiatric survivor publicly on a number of stages.

How do your suicidal experiences define you, if at all?

To be honest, I feel suicide is not an option. My body does not want to die. It takes a lot of fucking work. It’s not easy. Also, I have the belief that I’ve just gotta get through this life one way or another. But when I was actively suicidal, I was desperate.

If anything, I’m proud to live through adversity. I’m pretty open. If anyone has a problem with that, I don’t care what they think.

You’re a therapist. Do you think counselors have an obligation to disclose their past suicidal experiences?

The norm is, you wouldn’t. If I had a client who is suicidal, I would not bring up my suicide attempts unless I thought it would be very helpful to the client.

I think it can be helpful for someone to know they’re not alone. I haven’t actually had to disclose my suicide attempts. I haven’t had clients who were actively suicidal. Most of my clients have physical disabilities, developmental disabilities, or are young children.

What do you think about putting the message out there that it’s difficult to kill yourself, that there are so many risks involved in attempting?

I agree that the message about how difficult it is to kill yourself might make someone think twice. I had no idea when I attempted suicide how hard it is.

I don’t know that’s going to be helpful, to be honest. I haven’t really thought about that. If someone is really suicidal, they might say, “I don’t care.” In my case, I just wanted relief. I just didn’t have time to feel rational _ “I don’t want to be a quadriplegic, etc.”

The better thing is to let people know they’re not alone.

If you had known what you know now when you were 14, would you still have tried?

I think it would have made me more desperate: “Oh, shit, now what?” I really just wanted pain relief. The only thing that could have helped would be having a connection with another human being.

You didn’t seek out anybody?

By the time I saw the pastor, it was after my last attempt. Then I left home and went to college. I was pretty isolated emotionally. There wasn’t anyone to take my troubles to. I was trying to make straight As, to be a good girl.

You were nervous about approaching teachers, friends?

I was just so numb, completely numb. There wasn’t much of an opening. Depression is such a thick wall, you know. Plus, there’s the horrible stigma of “I feel so bad, I want to kill myself.”

You mentioned that when you were in the documentary, you all watched some movie scenes of suicide. What do you think of the portrayal of suicide in the media?

I don’t watch mainstream media, but I remember the film _ “Elvira Madigan”? Maybe it was over a failed love or something. It was terribly romantic. They were running through these fields, slow motion, then a bang. Another one, “They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?” They used to have these dances where if you stayed dancing the longest you could win money. Again, it was romanticized. I think that’s bad, I really do.

I recently saw a film, “House of Sand and Fog.” There’s a suicide in that. No, he committed suicide. And what happened in “Harold and Maude”? My friend Nancy is reminding me of that. Anyway, I don’t think it’s good to romanticize suicide because it’s not romantic in reality.

How should the topic be dealt with?

It should be more accurate. In “House of Sand and Fog,” it was very gory. Very difficult to watch. He was very determined. It was coming out of deep, deep pain. It wouldn’t make me think, “I want to do that.” But “Elvira Madigan” kind of did.

You know, I haven’t given suicide a lot of thought. Didn’t Szasz say everyone has the right to kill themselves? I think that might be true. I don’t agree with involuntary hospitalization. So maybe it’s OK. I heard a radio documentary about a woman who orchestrated her suicide very consciously, deliberately, with all her friends there. She just took control. Then there’s the Hemlock Society. I mean, if you’re going to do it, they may know how to do it. I think people should have the right. But I think that most people who are feeling suicidal really want relief from the isolation they feel. When I was feeling suicidal, I didn’t have the ability to think ahead.

How do you reconcile these ideas?

I don’t know.

If I was feeling suicidal and you said to me, “You could end up brain-damaged, quadriplegic, I’d say, “I don’t care. Do you have a better plan? I’ll try harder.”

(Kristina then asked me about my own experience, and I told her.)

I’m all for talking about the hard stuff. It’s important, and it helps break isolation and build connection. It helps alleviate feelings of depression that can be so great that we feel suicidal.

Talking with Hugh Massengill

Hugh Massengill has found a surprising calling. Every year, he speaks to hundreds of university students about his experience both as a survivor of suicide attempts and as a former homeless person. He was equally frank in a telephone call with me as he is with the students, who are often too shy to ask him questions (always about their friends’ situations, not their own) until after class.

My name is Hugh. I live in Eugene. I get a VA disability pension. I’m 65, I kind of live by myself. I first started having problems back in about 1971 or so. I was raised in a family where feelings were sort of the enemy. I had no sense of what was going on inside of me.

I got out of Vietnam and worked as a security guard. I would walk out on the top of the building at night and stand on the ledge, and I kind of thought about jumping off. A few months later, my girlfriend dumped me for my roommate. I went to my parents’ home, took a rifle and put it up to my temple. It was about 1971. I didn’t know how serious it was. I shut everything down. I quit my job. I bought a VW bus and traveled around the country and came to Eugene. If I was away from my family, it all kind of went away.

In 1974, I had no money, no one. I was in San Francisco, and I spent a week trying to jump off the Golden Gate Bridge. It was like I was unconscious. It was like, “Life sucks, and I’m going to end it.” I did that for five days. Every morning. I’d hold the rail for a while then walk back home. On the fifth day, I realized I wasn’t going to jump. I went to a local hospital and they put me in for three days. I didn’t really get the conversation: “Who are you, what’s going on?”

In 1975, I went back to the East Coast to live with my parents. I got more and more angry, suicidal. I went to the VA and they gave me pills, and I emptied it and took all of them. I said, “This is it.” But instead of drifting off to sleep, as I saw it, I got sick. I went to the hospital and got my stomach pumped.

In 1975 to 1978 I was very suicidal. I was in the VA and state mental hospitals. Something inside me just wanted to die. Then my mother committed suicide. Something in me sort of flipped. She was the only person I sort of linked to.

I went to Eugene, went to the rescue mission and stayed four or five years and became less suicidal.

It didn’t feel like I was part of the process. I never tried to work it out. It was like an automatic process. From 1978 to 1984, I was at the rescue mission. From 1985 to 1986, I worked at the post office. The suicidality came back. If I was at the rescue mission, daydreaming, it was OK.

I remember buying a vacuum cleaner just for the hose, to hook it to the exhaust pipe of my car. I had a couple of crises at work and quit the post office. Right around then, the VA set up counseling centers. I wandered in and talked to someone over a period of years. His father had committed suicide. He later committed suicide.

In the state hospital, they tie you down and inject you with drugs. At the VA, they’re more like, “Let’s work this out.”

Over time, I got a VA pension, and I live in subsidized housing. I finally gained an understanding that I was in trouble. I tackled it seriously. I got enough sleep. I did hobbies. I spent a lot of time talking with counselors. Tomorrow I’m talking to a university class about being homeless.

It’s like opening a door. The antidote for me was, one, finding a safe place and two, finding a way to talk about my problems.

I’m convinced it’s still there. Part of my personality. I don’t feel like it’s a mental illness thing. It’s like something I learned. I learned how to speak English, and I learned how to cope with things by thinking I could kill myself.

You talk publicly about this?

I talk about some of it. I talk to two classes. One is a psychology of trauma class. The other is social services. What I try to do is show it’s logical. Nothing in my life is mental illness.

What are the kinds of questions people ask?

In the psychology class, the questions tend to be technical, when did it happen. In social services, they ask about my family. I was surprised when I first did a psychology class. I asked who had had experience with a suicide that affected them deeply, and about three-fourths of the people raised their hands.

There are very few people who can say, “I’ve had these problems, I’ve been hospitalized.” There’s a stigma. A lot of people talk about their family members.

When a lot of people pull the trigger, I’m sure a lot don’t know what they’re doing. They’re like on automatic pilot. They need to recognize, “Oh, I need help.” I’ve had people say, “If we had support groups in high school or college that I could walk into and talk about my problems …”

After a few years, you lose the ability to have relationships. You tell people to pull themselves up by their bootstraps, and they just can’t. They lose that ability.

You pulled yourself up.

Yeah, but it took 20 years. Plus, I used the vet centers, talked to a person I trusted, knew they were not going to lock me away. I’m not suicidal at all.

You mentioned being on auto pilot. How do you snap out of that or have others recognize when you’re in it?

It’s difficult. I’m now aware enough to see the signals, to go to the VA and talk to somebody. I learned what the triggers were. My therapist said there’s a big difference between “I wish I were dead” and “I want to kill myself.”

When you learn to shut down, you develop a talent for not being there. It’s very hard for someone on the outside to recognize it. One conversation you need to have is, “Where did you learn this? Do you trust me enough to tell me about it?”

For decades, I didn’t have any friends. My life was on auto pilot. If someone in junior high school had said to me, “Here’s how to get help,” “Here’s what a dysfunctional family is like,” maybe I would’ve gotten help.

One thing that surprised me was how powerful this unconscious part of me was. I’m convinced that sooner or later they’ll be able to use a scan and see those states within the brain. It’s a natural reaction, it’s about being soul dead. I was so disconnected from myself, so unhappy.

(He talks about a study one researcher did with putting primates in a “depression box,” with the theory that the better-adjusted primates would survive it better.) He found out that every primate put into this box, all came out seriously screwed up. I see that as what happened to me. If you’re trapped in a relationship, in a job, a situation, a human being is going to feel really, really bad and maybe suicidal.

People in the classes often ask, ‘How do we notice this? How do we help?” Once the process of suicidality takes hold, it takes a long time to be aware and change the path. You have to change to being happy about your day. Eventually one day, you wake up more happy than sad.

It’s much easier to deal with someone in seventh grade than someone in their 50s.

That sleepwalking suicidality is scary. I suspect some people in these classes are going through it themselves.

(He asks about my own experience.)

One of the problems of the mental health system is it doesn’t listen too much to consumers. I get more from consumers.

I spent about 15 years in legal aid, doing intake interviews, getting sadder and sadder. One of the smart things I did was quit that, saying I needed to get away from trauma.

I just turned 65. Life leaves you alone when you get older. A weight off my shoulders. My mother’s suicide, moving away from my family helped.

You’re 65 now. Older men are said to be the ones who don’t talk about this, whose suicides come as a surprise. Why are you different?

It does go against type, being a veteran. This sort of liking to talk, this is who I am, so I can do this. I’m sure more than a few men have committed suicide who were far more blind to what was going on than I was.

I was not very good at suicide. I took the pills, and I knew nothing about the pills. They just made me sick. I joke in the class that I had to walk two or three miles in beautiful weather to the Golden Gate Bridge and was feeling too good by the time I got there to kill myself.

A lot of men my age develop bad habits. They drink too much, get in trouble with the law. I try not to get in conflict.

Some people really are good at suicide. Very focused. For some of us … I really don’t know. I have to admit that my suicidality was serious. I bought a car, I bought a vacuum cleaner, I would drive the car with the hose up into the mountains to practice killing myself. I was sure a crisis would come along to destroy me, but it never did.

A couple of things helped. I got a pension, financially safe. I didn’t have relationships. I suspect some people commit suicide because of their screwed-up relationships. Men tend to have problems establishing relationships. At some point, the emptiness, the loneliness kills you.

But what about in your case?

I’m somebody who had so much pain in my relationships that I love my aloneness. I’ve formed a couple of loose relationships, go to meetings.

I tend to ask this question into each of these interviews, and I want to ask you: Considering the riskiness of suicide methods, why do we forge ahead anyway?

I think a lot of my personality was submerged. I functioned a lot of times automatically, no thoughts or worries. Like I’m just watching it happen.

What messages, if any, should be changed about suicide?

If the message got out there that it’s not OK to go through life on auto pilot, not cool to be that way. You can put a person on another path if you make them understand that happiness can exist.

Even my therapists were screwed up. Even in the midst of my misery, I was listening. If someone had told me, “You’re on this path to be miserable,” I would’ve seen it. But how often does darkness and suicidality be talked about in schools? How do I take another path if I don’t know it’s there?

How do you bring up the topic of suicide, since many people seem scared to do it?

You live in New York City, right? You could generate some kind of speakers’ bureau. Not in small towns, though. There are very few people out there. As part of my healing, I like to make people understand.

How did you end up talking at schools?

It was a strange coincidence. I was on the local human rights commission and I talked about this. A guy at the local university asked me to come talk. Then I found out I had to get on stage and talk for one hour and 20 minutes. But I was embarrassed to go to him and say, “I can’t do it.” So I did it. I was amazed I could do it. It was terrifying. Then my story got out there. Other teachers invited me.

I asked how often these people hear from (mental health) consumers. They said, “You’re probably the first consumer they’ve heard from.”

I think my message is really useful. I’m not patting myself on the back. It’s just a recognition. “Let me tell you what it’s like to be in a mental hospital, what it’s like to be suicidal.” I take to it. I swear, genetically I’m a talker. And I love teaching. It’s scary, but I can do it. I over the year talk to maybe six classes, 300 to 400 people total.

It’s useful to tell my story, useful for them to hear it. Betty Ford had alcoholism. And she courageously said, “I’m going to talk about alcoholism.” And it gave people courage.

You said people in these classes often ask you questions about their friends. Do you ever wonder if they’re actually asking about themselves?

Yeah. The funny thing is, they don’t ask in class, they wait until after class. They hang back. One time, I left and a young woman ran out, hugged me and said, “You’re telling my story.”

I talk to a younger version of myself in the back of the room.

I run into people all the time. People rarely talk about their personal lives. They tend to couch in terms of “I know somebody.”

I talk about living in a homeless shelter. Some people wake up there and say, “I wish I were dead,” and some would say, “I get it.” The dangerous thing is, sometimes suicide is rational.

How would you like your life to end?

Oh, Oregon has a death with dignity law. I can imagine getting older and getting some disease. I love the idea that suicide is available. I don’t imagine committing suicide otherwise. But you never know. I’m 65. When I’m 75, and all my friends have gone away, who knows?

When my mother committed suicide, I read her journal. Suicidality often involves a splintered-off personality. When crisis happens, I’m back in that personality state. I go back to being that traumatized person. I think a lot of people commit suicide because they get into a crisis, a trauma, and boom, that person has no connection with reality. I call it the stalker within.

Nowadays that I’m friends with myself, it doesn’t happen. But in the future, I don’t know. The odds are, I’ll be OK. Again, talking like this helps.

What if someone reads the question I just asked you and cringes and says, “Don’t talk about such things, don’t give him that idea!”

I’ve said nothing here that I haven’t said to the classes. I would welcome that debate, talking with others.

Who else are you?

Good question. When in darkness, that’s who you are. Now that’s a small part of me. I’ve filled my life with other things. I like to work with computers. I’ve got a couple of friends. I tend to live an isolated life. When you’re 24, it’s like life will go on forever. I’ve only got a few years left. I get to wander around, enjoy the breeze and the sunshine.

I like that, “enjoying the breeze and the sunshine.”

When I turned 45 or 50, a strange thing happened. I call it the grandparents’ gene. I used to think little kids were a pain in the ass. Now, when they’re around, something just connects. Like puppies. Maybe it’s just about recovering your feelings.

I had to stop for a second, “Do I really mean that?” Yeah. It’s true. I’ve got a little while left. Let’s enjoy every damn day.

People go through it. They don’t need to be stigmatized. Sooner or later, everyone develops an addiction to something. So everyone needs to take care of each other.

Talking with Cindy Myron

Cindy Myron has the intriguing job of mental health peer specialist, which is something I know little about but want to explore more. The idea of talking with someone who has “been there” and doesn’t mind saying so can seem more attractive than talking with someone who’s been trained to keep their experiences silent.

And yet, note her description of how people sometimes look at her, with the fear that she could press a button and get them locked away. How much do we keep to ourselves because of that fear? I wonder. On to the conversation.

Who are you?

I work as a peer specialist for NAMI. I work in a forensic program with people with mental health problems and often substance abuse problems as well. We help people with minor offenses to try to break the cycle of going in and out of jail and mental hospitals.

I’m going to start graduate school in mental health counseling in January. I’ve been working in the mental health field since 2000. From 2000 to 2002 I was attending college, studying psychology. When I graduated, I had a lot of traumatic experiences that led to an episode of psychosis. I had been depressed before, but hadn’t sought help. This time I attempted suicide. I tried to take a bunch of sleeping pills because this girl I’d worked with _ I had been envious of her because she was so pretty _ she killed herself that way, and everyone said she must have just drifted off to sleep _ what an easy way to go. I didn’t know that sleeping pills have the opposite effect when you take a lot of them; they stimulate you. I didn’t go to sleep for a very long time. I thought, “Should I take more?” but I didn’t want to be like my friend who took a bottle of aspirin at 16 and ended up with really, really bad stomach problems. I was afraid to mess myself up but still live. I went back to my parents’ house. I was hallucinating and thought they would shoot me to finish the job. I was rushed to the hospital in an ambulance, where I drank charcoal and had heart seizures. There was never a quiet drifting off to sleep.

From the hospital, I was committed to the mental hospital. I had a friend who had been hospitalized, and they took the underwire from her bra for her safety. They didn’t take my underwire away, and I thought, “Well, maybe this will work!” I tried to cut my wrists with it in the shower and made a bloody mess. They were mad at me; they bandaged me up. That was it. They later instituted a rule because of me: No underwires.

There are a lot of misconceptions about methods of suicide, but the most important thing isn’t the misunderstanding of the method, but the fact that at the time I felt there was absolutely no way out, no possible way that life could be good again. Now, I’m so glad I didn’t succeed. I’m happy, healthy, married, I have a job, I’m not suicidal, I’m not depressed.

I think the tragedy of suicide is that it’s based on the belief that there’s no chance you’ll get better. I was listening to NPR a few days ago and they had this story about vampires, and it was meant to sound like a true story, and I was a bit scared. It reminded me of H.G. Wells’ radio show about aliens that led people to kill themselves because they thought that aliens were coming and that this was the end. I don’t mean to trivialize _ suicidal people usually have very real and serious problems, unlike those aliens who were never coming _ but in another sense, it’s an extremely similar situation to me: You’re positive that it’s the end of things worth living for, and it isn’t. If you don’t succeed, you’re lucky because you can work it out for the better.

What if you don’t get better?

I’m not going to judge other people for their decisions. Some people who don’t succeed do continue to live lives of misery. But I certainly think that people who have succeeded might have lived on and gotten better. There was a young kid, 16, who killed himself recently because people were taunting him for being homosexual. I’m not homosexual, so I haven’t experienced the pain of being taunted for that reason, but you just wonder, if he had not succeeded, maybe he would have gone on to live a life as a happy person.

How do you stop people from challenging themselves in such a risky way, trying to kill themselves? How do you snap them out of thinking that suicide is the only way?

My family showed me a lot of love, and I gradually got better. Actually, and I don’t recommend this, but my dad told me that if I killed myself, he would kill himself too. I couldn’t live _ or rather, die _ with the knowledge that he might do that.

Despite my work in the mental health system, I didn’t realize at first that I was sick. Once I realized that, I realized that I could get better. I wavered, too, like, “This is really hard, I’m so depressed, I don’t think I can do this,” but I didn’t attempt again. Eventually I got to the point where I didn’t want to attempt. It’s not like flipping on a switch. I was like, “OK, let’s stay alive.” And then I took it one step at a time.

What helped you the most?

My family. And I read a book by Marianne Williamson, “A Return to Love.” I worked on learning to love myself, which I did not know how to do before. I didn’t really have any patience with myself before that. I thought I had to be perfect and productive all the time.

How did you find that book?

I was in Barnes & Noble with my family. It kind of jumped out at me. I don’t know if you have these moments, like divine intervention. I said, “Please, I want this book.” I didn’t have any money, and my parents were paying the bills. They were happy to buy it, and desperate to do anything that might help.

How do they feel now, your family?

My parents don’t really like to talk about that period. They just thank God it’s over. At the time, they were really sad and desperate. They got really disgusted with the mental health system. I see that when I try to bring it up, they’re like, “Yeah, well, let’s talk about something else.” Sometimes we mention it in passing, and that’s not a problem. I refer to that time in my life as “when I was sick.”

What part in your life does your experience play?

I was feeling passionate about the issues of mental illness and recovery. Then this happened, and I really felt passionate. It helps me do my job better. I’m going to get my degree, and then I hope to publish a book about my experience.

It’s not anything I would have consciously wanted for myself. It was a living hell worse than anything I could possibly describe. But it also brought gifts into my life that never would’ve happened to me, transforming my relationship with myself, with others and with my higher power. I feel I have more tolerance than a lot of colleagues do. When they say, “This person is annoying, make them go away,” I keep listening, to see what we can do for them.

What drew you to mental health work, since you started it before your attempts?

I guess on some level I knew maybe I had problems. I was depressed a lot before that happened. I drank a lot in college, and changed my major about 10 times. It took me a long time to get my degree. I finally decided on psychology: “Maybe this will help me figure myself out.” Maybe I was just, like, tired of switching. But I think it really just stuck.

Why talk openly about your experiences?

Because I feel it’s important that people know that you can get better from this, and if you don’t talk openly, not as much can be gained from that experience _ in a way, it means I went through that hell for nothing. This is something I can use to give to other people, that “Yes, I used to be as ill as you are.” I know some people don’t talk about it, and I respect their choice. There is a stigma. People have discriminated against me in the past. But I make it a priority to be honest anyway. I do talk generally with people I work with, because that’s what a peer specialist does, but I don’t get into all the details, unless I am asked.

What’s the benefit of talking with a peer?

You’re talking to someone who understands what it’s really like to go through what you’re experiencing, and you tend to feel that there’s a better likelihood that that person’s not secretly judging you. I think there’s definitely value in both the educational route and the experiential route of learning about recovery, and I hope to make the best of both worlds.

Should psychiatrists and therapists be required, or encouraged, to talk about their own experiences as well?

I certainly don’t think they should be required. I know a lot have been trained not to talk about their own experiences. Obviously if you’re in a session and you’re talking about yourself the whole time and not listening to the person, it’s not good, and it’s not what peer specialists or anyone should be doing. But if you say, “I’ve had my own challenges” _ and some therapists and psychiatrists have had serious ones _ that can help. Professionals have to use their own intuition. I don’t think there should be prescribed rules. But there are a lot of closeted peer professionals who could add to their work by coming out.

Where did you get your assumptions about various suicide methods?

I think we just hear different things, have different ideas about what would be a good or bad way to die. Sometimes you get ideas about the worst way. One time I thought, “I’m terrified of trucks, so I’ll run in front of a truck.” I thought I deserved to die in the worst possible way. But I didn’t have the nerve and the opportunity at the same time, thank God.

Some of the ways that are more scary, more violent, you’re more sure they will work. Statistically, women are more likely to attempt suicide, but men are more likely to succeed, because they tend to use guns. Women are a little more afraid of guns and brains blowing out.

There’s also the Internet. I’m pretty sure one of my friends looked for methods on the internet. Another friend read the book “Final Exit.” I remember my friend telling me he had read it and asking him, “So what are you planning?”  I was scared, but he assured me he wasn’t planning to attempt suicide, and as far as I know he didn’t attempt. My parents ran into him quite recently.

Why would you trust anonymous online information?

I think people who are suicidal often are desperate and are not thinking clearly in the first place. And the internet is full of information, some good, some bad. I can’t recall what, if anything, I looked at regarding methods, so I’m definitely not an expert on quality versus non-quality information on killing yourself. I would not have known the book “Final Exit” existed if my friend had not told me. So where else would one think to look? Obviously there is no one who has been successful who is around to tell us what works. If really your goal is to kill yourself, who do you go to to say, “I want to kill myself, what’s the best way?” Then you get put in the hospital against your will.

Is hospitalizing someone the best response?

It’s a complicated issue. Committing people to keep them from hurting or killing themselves can save lives. I do wish these places were happier places, because people dread going there. So many people have been so cautious with me, they don’t want to reveal that they’re too depressed. If they say they wouldn’t mind if they died, they get panicky and ask if I’m going to send them to the hospital. But being depressed and not minding if you die is not the same thing as wanting to take your own life. Then sometimes people are lying, “Of course I’m not going to kill myself,” but they’re actively planning it. If they are that determined, sometimes there is no way to stop them.

People are afraid I’m looking at them, ready to press a button and send them to the hospital if they say the wrong words. I explain that I don’t have that authority, but I tell them the types of situations that would obligate me to call the police _ if they say they want to kill themselves or others. Then the police decide whether to take them to the hospital. Sometimes you have to do that, and it isn’t fun, but if lives are in danger, it has to be done.

If someone says, “Sometimes I wish my life was over,” that’s much more common, and I will have a conversation with them to make sure they are not in danger of hurting themselves. I want people to be open, but I let them know I will call the police if they are planning to kill themselves. They’re OK with that.

What else makes you you?

I’m married, I’m close to my family, I have a cat, I enjoy reading and writing and meditation and being outdoors. The school I’m going to has a certification in eco-psychology. It sounds interesting. One of my other passions is the environment.

What is eco-psychology?

I need more information before I know for sure that I will get that certification. Basically, it’s about the relationship between personal mental health and the health of the whole Earth. I just know it involves the environment, being outdoors and psychology, some of my favorite things, and I’m going to check it out.

Talking with Davey Davis

Are women more open about their suicide experiences? I don’t know, but finally we add a male voice to this young blog. I met Davey Davis in New York just after he moved here from overseas. His recent travels have taken him through the West Bank, Haiti and the Dominican Republic. Now he’s exploring the world’s greatest city _ that’s my opinion _ and updating his blog, dadarobotnik.com.

Tell me about yourself.
I’m 24. And I suppose I’ve thought of myself in terms of titles all my life, and the title that seems to fit the most is generalist. I guess I’ve always been interested in being competent with various creative output, I would say, whether writing or journalism or filmmaking, producing art events, creating community. Art as a venue to improve people’s understanding of things, to help people have a good time. Actually, change that to “let people have a good time.” I’ve got sort of a social justice streak that makes me resistant to the idea of say, charity. I’m more into the area of equality and finding solutions that help repair unfairnesses in the collective social past.On a more normal note, I like bicycles and travel and making things.

Why did you agree to talk with me?

Well, so as far as I understand it, the project is about delving into the idea of suicide through people’s stories. And I have a suicide attempt in my past, and thought it would be an interesting topic because it’s not something I’ve really thought about since I was 16. I mean, I’ve thought about it. We all think about it. It’s a funny talisman that we keep with us and pops up occasionally in moments of reflection and introspection. But I suppose for me, it’s just another aspect of my life story, another point of development or trial or challenge. So I thought it would be interesting to see what would come out of talking.

How would you go about talking about it?

There are so many facets. Everything from the rote, “Here’s what happened, here are my motivations, here I am now.” All the way to the more overarching social implications, political, you could even say, of, you know, what in this life is worth living for in general. Kind of nihilist or existentialist stuff. So I don’t know. I suppose it’s a question of on what level you want to engage in the subject.

I’ll start simple. What happened?

Well, I was 16 and I was one of these cocky, well-cared for, creative young middle-class boys. And though I was demographically normal in about every respect, I always thought of myself as exceptional. I thought that I could read faster and write better and entertain more easily, I could achieve physical feats and flirt with girls better than anyone else around. I can chalk that one up to being a product of American meritocracy, probably. But underneath my self-confidence was the resistance to the idea of working hard for anything. Because if I could be so good at things and do them effortlessly, so much the better. I was an anti-authoritarian kid. I had blue hair when I was in 8th grade. I would alternate between playing Dungeons and Dragons in the hallway with what I guess you’d call nerds and going out with the cute student body president, 8th grade achiever types that were both desirable and interesting. But I suppose as a result of my upbringing or my reading or something, I was born with a deep kind of profound knowledge that all was not well with the world and that human beings had a lot of work to do to make this planet better. So I guess this “The whole world is a dystopia” complex and what I’ll call the “Golden boy” complex butted heads with each other. When I was 16 and things started to catch up with me, I began to lose the adolescent perspective that you know everything, and it didn’t sit well with me. People were getting better in classes like biology and chemistry where hard work paid off, and I felt my territory was being encroached upon. But the actual suicide predictably sort of starts with a girl. And a car crash. And a fall.

I had driven motorcycles all through my youth and was just being trusted with a large one that was sort of a gift-slash-vehicle to create bonding experiences with my father, who was an avid motorcyclist. And I kept crashing the damn thing. And I didn’t like that because I was supposed to be good at everything. I had this girlfriend when I was 16 who was completely incompatible with me, she was into Top 40 music and Abercrombie clothes and makeup. And I was into Rage Against the Machine, environmental club and finding my clothes at secondhand shops. But still, when she broke up with me, it contributed again to that whole, “Wait a minute, I’m supposed to be the best” complex. So I guess I had this underlying psychological edge that I was hiding, that I was more of a failure than I wanted to be. And then I was really impulsive. At this point, it was April 15, 2004, I want to say, maybe 2003? And I was 16 and I ran an errand for my mom, take some taxes to the accountant on tax day. I totaled her car on the way back, crashing on the freeway. And that was the final straw for me.

In that sort of adrenaline-fueled shock or stress after crashing the car, I called my mom from this place of almost Zen-like, what’s that word, complacency? Zen-like, satisfaction? There’s a word hidden there. Peace. Tranquility. My mom was stressed and upset. And on the way home I impulsively looked up at a passing building and said to myself, “I can climb that, I can jump off that, I think I’m going to jump off that. So I went home, had a good night with my parents, laughed and ate pizza, and chatted with them about nothing, the three of us lying on their bed. And I hid my plan like I hid everything else that was bothering me. An alarm woke me up at 1 a.m. and I walked a couple blocks to the building in my favorite outfit. And I did it.

I climbed it hand over hand over the balconies. It was one of these middle-age to retiree level places with nice balconies overlooking the city. To get to the third floor, I had to scale some architectural features kind of like a climbing wall. Hand over hand until the 10th story. And about that point there was an architectural feature that created an overhang that I couldn’t get past. So I turned around, called 911, said there’s been a suicide at such and such address, and as paramedics tried to get more info from me, I hung up the phone and I jumped.

I remember the air rushing by me and all that tilting forward. I remember yelling or screaming, and then I woke up in the emergency room.

It was 5 a.m. and my mom was looking down at me on the bed. And I was indescribably happy to be alive. I had a neck brace on, and I thought I had crashed my motorcycle again and I was wearing my helmet. So there’s the story, the play by play.

What happens next is harder to talk about, harder to create a narrative out of. Because it’s all the messy interpersonal relationships between you and the people you care about most that end up adapting, expanding, and complicating around this one irrevocable incident. I’m definitely who I am as a result of that decision. And though at this point I can luckily say that none of my relationships have changed for the worse in the long run, what happened when was 16 _ what I mean to say is, what I did when I was 16 _ made me grow up a lot in the years until I was 20. And we can definitely try to get our heads around that if you like.

Yeah.

Well, because at the root of all this, who I am, is a creative person with tons of energy who has abounding fascination with life. And sure I’m an atheist or an agnostic, so that fascination is a bit flip or fatalistic in the sense that meaning is what we make it and all that. But I can’t help but think how much enjoyment I’ve gotten out of the last 8 years is largely due to the fact that the consequences of me being impulsive when I was 16 could have utterly obliterated the chance for all that.

Because I’ve done so many crazy and lovely and fun and empowering and just lucky things since then. And I’m profoundly grateful for it. I talked psychologically constantly with my family. My stepdad is a psychologist. One of the things is, he wanted me never to dupe him again. And I think largely that made me want never to dupe anyone again. I became ridiculously earnest. And I think one of the casualties of the whole experience was some part of my sense of humor. Because I can’t bring myself to be not completely honest about how I feel anymore.

Maybe I should be a psychologist.

There’s lots of places to go from here, lots of ways to think about this, this thing. You know, if you’re a person of faith or a person who looks for logic, you could obsess over the whole question of why some people get to survive and are dealt a second card and other people don’t have any cards to begin with. And I find it more than a little bit grating that as a lucky, loved, well-adjusted, privileged, middle-class white dude from America, I was given a second shot, and even as recently in the last month, I’ve met people whose life situations will never have one degree of the luck that I have. But I don’t let that weigh me down unduly. I just try to kick ass with the time I’ve got and do good work.

One thing that I remember you writing about on the blog is this interest in the moment or the action or the method. And what people would do differently or whether people would abstain from trying to kill themselves at all, if they knew how hard and messy the act was. I don’t think of the act as hard or messy. I think of the fallout and the drama and the hearts you break as infinitely more troubling than an emergency room visit. Even if that visit results in being horribly maimed or mentally handicapped. But that’s probably, again, because of the incredible luck of my personal circumstance. Because I got away unscathed in the physical department. I have a reconstructed knuckle on my right hand and a scabby scar on my scalp that ensures that I probably can’t moonlight as a skinhead. But personally I don’t think that stories like this would be a deterrent for somebody who’s come to the conclusion that they need to off themselves. I can go on about my love of life and my pure joy at having survived, which is genuine, but I still hold that there are greater systemic forces that can put people out to the point that they’re in a psychological place to kill themselves. And it’s those root causes, those unfortunate attributes of developed society that I’m interested in working to improve.

Because I’m still a radical, I guess. I still look out at the world and say, “Hey, this is kind of fucked up.” And I don’t know if, when an adolescent approached me and said, “This world is cold, dark place,” if on the whole I would necessarily disagree with them. But in the face of that, it means that we as a collective species have a lot of good work to do. And since I jumped off that building, I’ve learned the value of good hard work.

And I’m willing to rise to the challenge in my own small way.

(Shrugs.)

What if the adolescent says they want to kill themself?

The whole idea of apathy is quite scary to me. And if somebody doesn’t care to the point of being self-destructive from that lack of caring, then realistically I’ve probably reached them a little too late. I would probably choose a tactic that is realistic for their environment and work on empowering them in that respect. So for me, that defense mechanism was always to travel. If I ever felt apathetic or lost, I would throw myself into a whole new set of circumstances and meaning would come from that.
You just moved here.

I did. I just moved to New York. I’ve been here all of 12 days. I can already see this living thing blossoming because of all the connections and friends and potential discovered here. And that’s very much part of the nature of who I am, but that’s because I’ve done the hard work to figure out what gives me satisfaction, what gives me meaning. And maybe our theoretical adolescent would derive the same satisfaction by understanding, say, the inner workings of a clock, or learning to run faster than everyone else. Or by owning a dog, whatever. But we’re not gonna find that out unless we give it a shot. And the agnostic in me knows that something’s better than nothing. Even if it’s a challenge.

(He asks to switch to recording this talk instead of taking typed notes, because he’s speaking in a more formal way.)

I’m curious about the portrayals, the idea that it’s being romanticized, dramaticized. Should there be a different way of treating it from that way that’s out there?

Well, yeah. That’s one of the problems I see with the whole focus on the event. Why did you do it, what did you do, how was it like, and actually in therapy, after the fact, there were a lot of kids telling those kind of bravado-laden stories, and mine is one of them. It’s sensational, it’s unlikely, and it’s a believe it or not, a “Oh, he survived, he shouldn’t have” type of story, and that’s, that’s not useful, you know? Like that. That’s only useful in a literary sense. And as a literary person, I used the fact that I had this pivotal experience in my life to construct my life narrative. But that’s not worth the potential risk of being completely destroyed by what you do to yourself. Because you can’t, not everyone bounces back. I don’t know if most people don’t, but certainly within the first year afterward, there’s a lot of risk that A) what you did to yourself could completely dismember or destroy you, physically or otherwise, and B) that you’ll try it again. You know?

So I think the best thing the media could do could probably be to talk about why people were compelled to do the things that they did and what changed in their mindset afterwards. What changed from them not seeing a life worth living to seeing a life worth living. I think that’d be a big part of it.

Why do some people wake up relieved and other wake up really pissed off?

It’s a huge question and it’s a deeper question because the question is, essentially, have you lived your life cumulatively to the point that you’re alive now, to have created a context in which you find it worth living, you know? If you haven’t, if you’ve decided internally and externally that your life sucks, and you try to kill yourself and then you wake up, your situation’s worse, usually. So, like, nothing’s gotten better from overdosing and screwing up your internal organs or electrocuting yourself and dismembering half your face, or things like that. Things have gotten worse. So it makes perfect sense that people would try again, and the deeper question underneath that is, how do we work on changing the system in society from a way that doesn’t collectively isolate and disempower people. I’ve got my own personal ideas about that, but I’m not an expert.

I’m wondering if it’s the impulsive ones who wake up and are relieved, and if the ones who really thought it out are the ones who wake up with a not so happy outlook.

I think that really hits into something. The impulsivity factor in my own personal case played a huge role because I wasn’t a lifer, depression person. I wasn’t a person with a chronic chemical imbalance that made this as real a condition as anything else. For me, it was a series of things that I dealt with badly in my adolescence and then chose what essentially was an easy way out, or that was the kind of narrative I had in my head at the time. And then, I got lucky enough again that I was able to realize my mistake and learn from it, which I shouldn’t have been able to do. And I was able to build off of that experience instead of having that experience be part of what made life worse. Which I think is really rare. I almost feel bad about telling my story because for me, a person who is easily inspired, it was inspiring in a sense that, like, it gave me a new bid on life. But it wouldn’t be if one in a million things had gone wrong. If I had clipped a piece of structure on the way down and dashed my face open, or broken my neck, or if my mother and I had a worse relationship beforehand and we could have been estranged for life, if my stepdad, you know, had taken it personally that I didn’t confide in him as a psychologist and became depressed himself, any number of things could have happened differently that could have made everything worse, and I don’t want to be obliquely responsible for people being like, “Oh, I just want to test myself, you know.”

That’s a heck of a test. And you just mentioned travel. Why isn’t that the impulse, to go travel and start fresh instead of killing yourself?

Well, part of it’s high school. Like, literally, high school and the connotations around that expression, you create a world, you create a box that you are so trapped in based on whatever your lived surroundings are, that the world seems too far away. High school is the best example because you’re there for four years and you care about the things that don’t matter. You care about like, what girl X, X and X care about your hair, you care about this assignment for a class that might be formative and educational but is really an abstract series of tasks. You know? And it’s hard to get out of that. And I’m very privileged, and it’s a been big priority of mine to travel. I’ve always saved up money, I’ve always had the ability to save up money, so that I can, you know, hop on my bike and go somewhere for a month and not have to worry about paying rent. Not have to worry about feeding myself or have to worry about occasionally getting a hostel or  a train ticket or whatever. A lot of people never have that privilege. And maybe because of the socioeconomic bracket that I’m  in, that sometimes I think about suicide as a privileged issue. Because I don’t know a lot of Palestinian refugees who have tried to kill themselves, I don’t know a lot of Haitians who have tried to kill themselves. I don’t know a lot of really disadvantaged people of color in the United States who have tried to kill themseves. Or, when I worked in homeless communities in Salt Lake, homeless people, that blew my mind. I was 18, I had seen my own potential to give up, and I was meeting people who had every right to give up considering their external circumstances, and they wouldn’t. They had the will to live. And it was a sustaining will to live. So that’s an interesting question in and of itself, like, what are the social parameters that will create an environment that people will kill themselves? And there are studies that say that you, know, that countries like Sweden and Japan have the least level of satisfaction on, like, a social communication level, so people feel isolated and alone. And like, living in occupation in the West Bank is really rough, but the whole system is built around the nuclear family, the whole system is built around a communal atmosphere, so you know the neighbors, you know the children, you know the grandparents, you have a whole support network you can turn to, and everyone cares about you. I mean, literally cares a lot about you in the way that we don’t have in a lot of western developed countries.

Where did we start, where did we end? (Laughs.)

Part of it is all this postmodern situation where you’re given all these options to choose and sometimes you don’t choose any of them and you end up feeling, like, adrift. But the opportunities that go along with that are so much more than being strapped into indentured servitude by your uncle who owns a shoe shop because that’s the only job that you can get, working there until you’re 30 or drafted into some kind of military situation, which is a scenario which is found all over the place.

Why does suicide have to come as a surprise? Some in assisted suicide plan it out … is there any kind of continuum between these two scenarios?

I think there definitely should be. I think that part of what you’re talking about, the difficulty we have to talk about this in an open manner, whether it’s for somebody young who by all accounts by societal standards shouldn’t be allowed to kill themselves, versus somebody old who may be able to make a case for, on a personal case-by-case basis, indicates an overall societal problem with the concept of death. And the concept of people taking control of their own death. And part of that is like the great white lie of developed society, which is like, your life matters. Like, you are important to the great entity that is late 21st century capitalism, you know, which is a case that may or may not have legitimacy to it. We’re two out of 8 million in this city. We’re two out of 7 billion on this planet. In five years, there’s gonna be another billion in some crazy amount of time., So individuals don’t really matter. But we don’t want to let them know it. And as a result, we get focused on preservation. And medical preservation is really interesting. Because it manifests itself in elderly people who are prolonged indefinitely, even when their lives are not resembling what they would want, ever, they’re living it out in a state of medical imprisonment for  a long time, and maybe they don’t even have the mental abilities to enjoy that state of consciousness or existence. All the way to providing medical aid to war-torn areas of the world but not looking at anything else in terms of civic, social, restructuring, trying to create a different economic relationship to those areas so we don’t continue trying to perpetuate the cycle of inequality. We don’t do that kind of work nearly as effectively as we, like, hand out malaria pills. Or whatever. And that’s problematic, too. So I think for me, as a radical, one of those solutions is to talk more plainly about what the state of affairs is. And maybe step away from this American notion of merit and find different values on which to center society. Because the value of individual merit and manifest destiny, you will take over the world, you will change the world, will matter if only you try hard enough, is not the only standard by which to live. In the Middle East, for example, the measure of success is not monetarily directly, it’s whether you have cultivated a good standing in society and are stable enough to support a family, a wife or a husband and build a loving unit around which you can grow. And I think focusing on cultivating relationships is much better than cultivating, like, status or success or material wealth. So let’s work on that. Like, teaching young people more coherent ways to love and live and share with other human beings around them. That’s not an inarticulable goal. It’s about changing values, It’s about not having as much television that perpetuates the idea that you are what you buy. Or you need to get a  good job in order to be respected by your peers. And not glorify broken relationships all the time, like pop culture is always talking about people being sad because their heart was broken by whomever, or hip-hop’s all about hustling or bitches or whatever, that’s just bad values.

I want to jump in with kind of a blunt and unfair question.

Cool.

You tried to kill yourself. Are you crazy? Somewhere in there do you have some kind of mental illness?

Well, I did, and I mean there was definitely something wrong with me in the sense that I don’t fit in well with the collective normalcy to the point that I did try to kill myself. But the world that I’ve created for myself, with a series of peers and interesting endeavors and projects and aspirations, all of my own kind of value system, works really well for me. And I think it would continue to for as long as I feel like living, which is probably until I’m cut down by some crazy cancer in my 70s or 80s.

Why did would you want to talk about this since you’ve moved beyond it?

So why would I want to revisit it? It’s interesting. I believe in transparency in my life. I don’t think there was anything wrong with what I did, and I’m not going to keep it a secret. And I think that discussing it can be a platform for some of the things I’m really interested in, like that kind of cumulative building of social values. So it works into the kind of advocacy that I’m into, but it’s also like an honest story. And when journalists are interested in honest stories, I’m willing to tell them.

How do you get other people to talk about it? Should more people be speaking up about this normally?

Yeah, well, I think part of it is relative self-confidence, getting people to be more OK with themselves and not feel like something they have to try to hide to preserve this façade of sanity. And part of it is to give them enough processing and distance so they can. Like for me, I’ve been really lucky in the sense that I’ve had eight years to process and think and move on. Somebody who had this happen last year might not be willing to put it out yet, and it’s totally fine. It’s totally justified, I think. And part of it is just finding language that doesn’t allow it to be stigmatized. Finding language means you can bring it up in casual conversation. Like, last night I was walking with a friend in the film industry, who sort of broke to me in a careful way that she had had bouts of chronic depression her entire life, that she battled chronic depression. And she said it in that kind of careful, apologetic, “I don’t really want to burden you, I don’t know you that well, but this is a reality in my life.” And without getting into details, I said, “I understand, when I was 16, I  had a similar set of challenges and it taught me a lot, so I kind of know where you’re coming from.” And we went from there. And she’s not my like soul mate, not somebody that I really have a deep relationship with, but we were both willing to talk about it. And if that just happens in various spaces in the social sphere, I think things get better.

Also, I don’t think depression and suicidal tendencies are as rare as people think they are. I think pretty much everyone I know has had a serious moment of like, “Is my life worth it?” Maybe not seriously considering killing themselves, but a kind of serious existential crisis of some kind or another.

How do you bring that up in conversation?

I think it’s the context. We have people right now down there in Zuccatti Park protesting that just generally the system needs to be changed. I think there’s a big connection between, I feel viscerally that there’s something wrong with my place in society and a systemic thing needs to be changed in X, X and X way, and it’s bridging the gaps, making the personal political, and vice versa. Instead of being like, I feel like society a lot of times is like, “Oh, you’re an activist, you obviously have a gamut of emotional issues that you’re externalizing.” Have you ever heard that kind of narrative before? It happens a lot with this idea that, like, people who are not emotionally sound devote themselves to causes rather than dealing with their own problems, which is a fair assessment in some situations I’m sure. But I think the more important thing is to say, look, human discontentment is a reality, but there’s a threshold beyond which it can’t be pushed, and if people can articulate the ways in which they are damaged or traumatized, then we can find ways to work on it together. What I was saying, realizing social values and stuff like that. So I think you just bring it up when you can, how you can, whether a political thing or a point of conversation.

What about the idea of coming “out” with this, as in homosexuality?

It’s an interesting question. I suppose I should preface my answer by saying that when I say the word “political” I’m not particularly thinking of men and women in suits with professional careers in politics. I’m thinking more in terms of how people are involved civically in improving the larger social sphere in what they care about. I think almost everything is political if you speak about it and if you are an advocate for things. But I think it’s an interesting question in terms of like the political realm, because we have a notion that our politicians have to represent some aspect of perfection, they need to toe the line, so to speak, which, as we’ve seen in like every scandal case ever, is not a sustainable model and is a ridiculous set of values to impose on somebody. So part of it is like relaxing about this whole, you know, do no wrong, body beautiful culture we engender though our standards. So I could envision it happening in sort of a coming-out kind of way. I think it’s a little bit different than issues like illegal alien status or queer identity in that … Actually, scratch that. I haven’t quite figured that out yet.

Some people see it as an ethnicity, talk in terms of madness, claiming an identity.

Interesting. I hadn’t really thought about that. I had to sort of stop that sentence mid-thought because I hadn’t quite thought about the parallels between what could be considered a mental illness or mental state and a physical state like being a sexual minority, you know, which is something you have equal or little control over. And that you can equally be judged for. Yeah, I think that is really interesting, There’s a lot of judgment.

What else would you like to say?

I suppose just, like, the clarity of the fact that there are so many different ways to live and pasts to have. And that being really, like, wary of aspects of elements of your past which are reality is something in general that I would want people to move away from. Because there’s no harm in the infirmities that we’ve had or the difficulties that we’ve had or the challenges we’ve had.

We’ve been sitting next to a nurse in her snazzy purple scrubs. What do you think she was thinking of this conversation?

She might have been embarrassed by the rudimentary level of discourse I’m able to participate in because I’m not a professional. But I imagine that she was too busy studying anatomy or something to really give a shit.

Who’s really an expert in this?

That’s really a good question, and that’s what I was just thinking about. It’s not a question of who’s qualified to talk about things, it’s a question of how many approaches there are to any given thing, any given issue. And I’d say that nurses and therapists and psychologist will bring a certain approach, but there’s also the way normal people talk about it, the way people unaffiliated professionally with the issue of suicide, what their conversations are like, and the idea that I’m beginning to articulate of connecting the dots of personal dissatisfaction and societal dissatisfaction. Part of it is learning to be more articulate. That’s where the writers, the journalists, the speakers of the world come in, just parsing this thing a little bit more normally and parsing this thing not from a point of view of psychological analysis but from a more layman perspective.

Did you say a more lame one?

Layman. Yeah. “This perspective’s lame.”

Talking with Trish Lane

I’m happy that you guys continue to agree to talk. I spoke with Trish Lane, who is a clinical psychologist and animal lover. Her three dogs kept us company in the background of our phone conversation. She has appeared in the video “Voices of Suicide,” which featured interviews with people who tried to kill themselves but hurt themselves terribly instead. We began the interview by saying, almost simultaneously, “Fire away,” followed by a “Look what we just said” moment.

Trish: Mine was a shotgun. That’s pretty atypical of women.

The reality is, most people don’t succeed in killing themselves, and the majority of them are relieved to wake up. I was 20, and I had this fantasy of, “No more pain, people will miss me, they’ll be sorry.” Yes, but life goes on.

I’m a 46-year-old clinical psychologist. I recently moved to New Hampshire. I’m married to a woman who is a veterinarian. You’ll hear my dogs barking in the background. We’ve been together I guess 14 years. I’d be in trouble for not knowing that.

Most of my work is with trauma and suicide. I tried to veer away from it initially because I was too close. I feel I have a unique experience in knowing how it feels to want to die and knowing how to get through it. Often I find other professionals say some of the clichés like, “Suicide is a permanent solution to a temporary problem.” And yet the person in front of them is in so much pain that they want to take their life. They need to be heard, not fixed.

I can go ahead and talk about my experience. I was 20. I was dealing with coming out (with my sexuality), having been raised by very conservative parents. I couldn’t have had more liberal views from them if I tried. I was a sophomore at Florida State University. I had always been a good student. That’s where I got my traction. Any self-esteem I had at the time really came from school.

I had a close friend I had known since grade school. She shot herself in the head, under the chin, when we were 19. And died. You know, that’s where the gun comes in. I was living in Florida, and you couldn’t buy a handgun under 25. I don’t like guns. I didn’t know about them.

My sexuality was a huge part of the attempt. That, and I was adopted at birth. There was a chronic sense of, “Who am I? Where did I come from?” A sense of searching. I found my birth mother when I was 26. At 20, the main thing was feeling that I’d been given away. I was a pretty bright, sensitive kid who grew up pretty fast. My parents divorced when I was 13, and my father remarried when I was 14. He was the primary caregiver. The sexuality issue, the chronic sense of being alone on the planet, and at 13 my body’s changing, my peer group is changing and my family’s changing _ which is generally the only thing that tends to be stable at that age, and it was giving way. I felt very betrayed by him. I ended up living temporarily with my adoptive mother for a couple of years.

The years prior to my attempt were very tumultuous, lonely. I know now I was clinically depressed. My father was an engineer by trade, raised not to be emotional. There was just not any place for feelings.

After my friend killed herself, I fantasized a lot about killing myself: “If this doesn’t go right, I’ll kill myself. If I don’t pass this, or get into this program …” Since Renee had been successful, I didn’t really have a sense that it would fail.

The attempt was April 25, 1985. I was living at the sorority house, at FSU. It was all a search for family. A lot of those young girls were into dating, boys, finding their future life partner, and I was struggling with being attracted to them and not the boys. At the time, I would have been horrified at the thought.

Sometime in mid-April, I went to a pawn shop to attempt to buy a gun. I don’t know if you remember Ted Bundy, he had killed sorority girls at FSU. So it was very easy for me to go in and buy a gun. I said I wanted to feel safe. They told me I couldn’t buy a handgun unless I was 21, but I could buy a shotgun. They were not in the least bit curious. But I’ve always been so convincing. They showed me how to load it, shoot it. I carried it in my car for about a week, barely covered with clothes in the backseat, kind of hoping someone would see it and say, “What the hell are you doing?” The day before the attempt, a friend did see it. I told her what I told the pawn shop. She said, “I don’t like this.” But once I make my mind up, good luck. She later told me she had a lot of anger at me, and rightfully so.

Then I went to a park in Tallahassee, listening to Pink Floyd’s “The Wall,” which is about as depressing as you can get. Pretty macabre. “The Best of Bread.” Another one. I was just really feeding the depression, that fantasy that ending it all would be so easy, so quick.

I first put the gun to my head but couldn’t get myself to pull the trigger. I put it to my chest. To my head, with the safety on. This happened for about an hour. I was ambivalent! I thought I was just getting my courage up.

I finally shot myself in the abdomen. I was sitting in my car. I struggled with whether I could do it. Almost accidentally on purpose, it went off.

Almost accidentally on purpose?

I wanted it to, but I didn’t. I didn’t want to back out, be a loser, I couldn’t even kill myself right. It was like I had backed myself into a corner that I couldn’t see any way out of.

Somehow or other, I managed to put the car in gear and roll backwards. A couple came running over. I am not a religious person, but the guy started praying. He had his girlfriend hold my feet. I was writhing in pain. And then I can’t remember much else. The pain was unbelievable. I’m glad the mind can’t remember pain like that.

The guy ran to get help. A jogger was in the park, and he was told that a girl had been shot. He had been in Vietnam, and he put his shirt on my abdomen until the EMS arrived. They say he saved my life.

I remember being in the hospital, the staff treating me like a mental case: How stupid could you be, so selfish. People were adding insult to injury. I was in the hospital for quite some time. I had to have a colostomy. Do you know what that is? They take the bowels out and you basically go in a bag. At 20, that was a pretty horrifying thing to entertain. I ended up very fortunate, only having it three or four months before it was reversed. I had lots of damage to my large intestines, my small intestines. I had terrible scars. Once the scar healed, I couldn’t stand up straight. I had subsequent surgeries to reverse the colostomy and to revise the scar. I was in and out of hospitals for the next two years treating the injuries.

Fortunately, the only permanent damage has been the scars. I carried a lot of shame around for a long time about the scar. People would ask, and I would joke and say it was a shark bite or make up some other preposterous story .

And that was that. My dad and stepmother came to the hospital. She and I did not have a good relationship. She tried to have my dad have me institutionalized. Fortunately, one of the nurses told my father, “If you do that, you will lose her for good.”

I went to live with my father and stepmother. She literally put the pain medication next to my bedside table. They had given me a lot of pain medication because we lived out of state. I don’t know if she was being passive-aggressive, like, “Go ahead and finish the job” or it was completely innocent, but she left huge bottles of pain medicine next to my bed. I got so angry that I decided to get well. I told my father that I was going back to FSU. I put myself through school and went from there to get my masters, my doctorate. I didn’t go back to live with them. They’re nice people, but they really suck at being parents.

I have done incredibly well with dear, dear friends and a life partner. I found a mentor, the mom I never had. I created a family of choice.

You never considered the gunshot not working?

No. Because Renee was successful, I had this fantasy that I would succeed.

There was an article in Reader’s Digest some years later, by an emergency room nurse. She basically said you can try to jump and end up a vegetable, shoot yourself in the head and end up with a deformed face …

(She takes a quick break to greet the pizza deliveryman.)

… she basically went through, you can take a lot of pills and have your organs fail … She went through all the major ideas people have and outlined what repeatedly happened when it didn’t succeed. Or she proposed you can live on to find happiness in the letter you get next week, the career that draws you to it, the person you meet next year. Basically, you can make it worse by attempting suicide or you can go on and live your life.

After I read that, I no longer allowed myself to fantasize about suicide as an option. I then knew, based on my experience, based on what she said, that the likelihood is it won’t work and will simply cause more pain. Then I worked in an ER a number of years and saw it myself.

Were you the person counseling people who had tried to kill themselves?

Yes, often. I would do the assessment.

Wasn’t it a difficult job for you?

I used my experience to connect with them. But before working with that population, I did my own therapy. I had good psychologists who helped me figure out what were my issues and what were someone else’s.

Was there anything special you told them? Did you let them know about your experience?

Unless I got to know them over time, I didn’t disclose it. But I did use it to really hear them. Some people are so busy talking them out of how they feel that they don’t say, “You’re in such pain. Tell me about that.” Once people are heard and know they are heard, they can generally begin to get to another perspective. But the more we tell them they “don’t want to do that,” the more entrenched they become.

My job is to help people not make a decision in crisis.

The ER nurse closed the article by inviting people to stick around. She took all the romance out of it. You poop all over, and if you blow your brains out … who do you think is gonna clean it up? She made it real.

For me, I heard people. A perfect example is, a young woman came in, said she was pregnant, said she couldn’t be pregnant, said suicide was the only option. I asked, “I know you want to kill yourself, but if you weren’t going to kill yourself, what would you do?” Eventually she came around, saying maybe she would consider adoption, maybe she could call the father. Because I validated her pain, said, “I hear you,” she was able to go ahead and generate options. At the end of the hour, she was able to find an option for not killing herself. I heard her. I didn’t try to talk her out of it from the get-go.

Are you familiar with crisis lines? Do they take that approach? Should they?

I think most of them are well-intentioned. The problem is, most are not well-informed. People are alone and scared and want to hear another person on the planet, sometimes that’s enough. But it only works for a small subset of the population. Plenty of people don’t call. We need more education on the front end. We need to learn as little kids how to cope and how to express our feelings.

We need more education about treating depression. We’re doing a better job about telling people what depression is but not what to do about it. If someone is clinically depressed but doesn’t want to take medication, I suggest that’s like being nearsighted and not wearing glasses. If you’re severely depressed you can’t “try to feel better” any more than you can try harder to see if you need glasses. And the stigma about seeking therapy is still very much a part of the culture. That also needs to change. I believe in a combination of medication and therapy. It’s really the only way to go.

Are you funded by any drug companies?

No. I’m a psychologist, not a psychiatrist. For a depressed person, medication can give an individual the energy and focus to make the changes. Medication alone is not the answer. Nothing changes if nothing changes. Sometimes medication alone only gives you the energy to kill yourself. But you would see no change in the world or in seeing yourself in the world without doing the work. That’s where therapy comes in.

Didn’t you just get a pizza?

I’m eating while you’re writing.

The Reader’s Digest approach, would it work if it were used more?

I get a lot of grief for saying this. Death is not a bad thing, and I do not feel I have a right ultimately to tell someone how to live their life or that they have to choose life. What I do feel is that people shouldn’t make that decision in crisis, and that living life means making decisions with as much information as possible. I believe that the majority of suicide attempts are made in crisis _ and that there is much we can do to educate and prevent people from choosing that option.

There’s this romance, seeing ourselves at our funeral, believing people will be sorry, that somehow we’ll be relieved from pain and have a sense of that relief. That’s not real.

I met a woman who tried to kill herself eight times, including setting herself on fire. I do not think I have the right to tell her to stay in this life if she feels so tortured by it. And this was after a lot of treatment. I think there are a few people, very few, for whom that’s their path.

How should the message of outreach be changed?

There needs to be a lot more education and awareness. I wish more coping skills were taught even in grade schools. It amazes me how little coping skills people have to ask for what they need, much less recognize it. On TV, they solve a crisis in 30 minutes. I feel children are presented with the TV view of life. They should get back to basics. If you’re angry, how to recognize it and what to do. If you’re sad, how to recognize it and what to do. I think people get to the point where they’re so overwhelmed that suicide is so much more palatable than the life they’re living. I met a 19-year-old who had started using drugs when he was 12. He said he thought it would be like being in a cartoon, the “psychedelic version of life where faces melt and you have cool visions.” But that’s the romanticized view of drugs _ forever chasing the relief. The reality is that like suicide attempts, reaching for drugs for relief causes more pain and agony. Neither are the solution.

Who is the most at risk?

Everyone is at risk, but there are groups that as a whole are more vulnerable than other_ gays and lesbians, native Americans, the elderly, to name a few. Many still believe it is still okay to discriminate against gays and lesbians. We need to tackle these tough issues. For example, now there’s more being publicized about bullying. But we have to move beyond trite armchair psychology. It is not enough to identify the problem. People know it’s a problem. People need to know what to do about the problem and do it.

That blunt message of Reader’s Digest, should that be out there more?

I think if someone was coming to you for the first time for therapy, you shouldn’t be that blunt. But you can weave into the conversation the reality of suicide and how the vast majority of people do not succeed; rather, they make their lives more difficult. But as I said before, that message is not shared until the person has had a chance to be heard. Many people, especially adolescents, feel that they are “different,” or that their solution will be different, so it’s important to be caring, not daring, when discussing that most people fail in their suicide attempt(s). Of course, I would not let someone leave my office dead-set on hurting or killing themselves. However, I read that article at a time when suicide was still an option, and realized a point of view that I had never considered. Another important aspect of reading the article was to be educated without having my own pain dismissed.

There’s this romanticized version of suicide, all the pain can be over. Of course that’s attractive. Why wouldn’t it be? But you may cause major damage to your organs, you may never walk again, you may never see again, you may never hear again.

I’d rather focus on how to live a meaningful life.

What do you think of media portrayals of suicide, in films, news reporting, etc.?

The point of view that’s mostly out there is, people are killing themselves in droves. They report the number of suicides, that it’s a dilemma. But they don’t really point to, “And here’s what we need to do to help those people.” They just give statistics. So it points to the feeling, “They did it, why can’t I?” If the media helped get out there again with a compassionate voice that, “Yes, people are hurting, but the vast majority don’t end up succeeding. So let’s talk about how to get you some meaning in your life.

Let’s start talking about what solutions are out there.” It’s very depressing, you know, to see what’s currently out there. That there are so many people hurting.

Anything else you want to put out there?

I think educating the family too. We’re a culture where we want quick fixes. Educating them that, “Look, she needs support.” Try to teach families to communicate as well. We’re just not talking with each other anymore. I’ve worked in places and we’re sending e-mails to each other in offices that are right next to one another. When people say they are so lonely and suicidal, it’s not a far reach for me to see how they got that way. I’m currently working with a man in private practice who describes his family’s disconnect. He said he wanted to take all three of his family’s iPhones _ the two kids and the wife _ and throw them in the ocean. They couldn’t be more separate if they were in different countries.

I think we should stop and be present. I think people don’t know how to do that.

Aside from this experience, who are you otherwise?

I am a _ gosh, that is such a small part of my experience now. It seems so far removed from who I am now. I’ve traveled all over the world, met a lot of amazing people, helped people, found the love of my life, I love animals, found other ways of connecting. I set up a nonprofit for animals, my spouse and I do what we can to promote animal rights without getting too radical. I like to hike and be outdoors. We just returned from a trip to the White Mountains of New Hampshire. I have such an appreciation for life now.

But I have had to learn how to do that. I used to set myself up to fail. I’ve learned how to set myself up to succeed. For example, if I called my stepmother and told her I was feeling bad, she’d say, “Why are you calling me and aren’t telling your father?” When I was younger, and depressed, I would call her or others who I sought affection from but weren’t available, kept looking for them to love me. I thought if I made good grades, a good job, if I made more money, earned my doctorate … when I have that, I’ll be OK. But when I attained those things, I still wasn’t OK, I was even more lonely. People thought I had it all. I’ll never have it all but I am okay now, and it’s not because of status, money or anything external. I’ve learned how to love myself and have love in my life. Now I call people who do care about me and would be on the next plane. I had no idea how to do that before.

Is there anything else you’re still working on?

Of course, I’m still a work in progress. We all are. When your goals are met, you look at creating new goals.

I don’t ever want to be a one-note person. I tried to kill myself, I am a Lane, I’m a psychologist, a teacher, I am gay … I don’t want any one aspect of my experience to overshadow the others. All of them are true.