More from Canada: Talking with Judy James

I met Judy James this week at Canada’s national conference for suicide prevention. A few hours later, we had the following conversation upstairs in her hotel room, with the window open on a beautiful view of Niagara Falls.

Judy’s direct, and she was just one of a half-dozen or more people at the conference who spoke openly about their suicide attempt experience. “I think that this is a natural part of life, as natural as any catastrophic event can be,” she says.

She speaks about how she pushed for years for attempt survivors to be recognized at the conference, and about how professional hockey players helped lead to a breakthrough in Canada’s public conversation on suicide over the past year.

“All you’re doing is having a conversation,” Judy says. “And honest, heartfelt conversations don’t kill. Ignorance and stereotypes and silence, those things do kill. So let’s start the conversation and keep it going until it’s as common a conversation as anything else. I don’t think I’m saying anything profound here. This to me makes common sense. But what do I know?”

Who are you?

Oh god. Well, right now, let’s see. I’m a 54-year-old supportive housing worker in Toronto, so my clientele are people who have been diagnosed with serious mental health problems, also have had issues with the criminal justice system. My job is to try to get them into housing and try to keep them housed. That’s where I’m at now. It’s a really far journey from where I started out, which was in … Well, if you were to look on a map, you could not find where my house was. Rural northern Ontario. So I grew up in a small town, excelled in school, skipped grade four, you do all the things that everybody expects of you to do. I was on the Reach for the Top team, like a TV quiz show for high school students. I was president of the student council. I had a weekend job as a reporter for the Sault Ste. Marie Star. I was doing that at 14. Again, to help support my family. My parents were both very abusive alcoholics. I found my escape in doing a lot of stuff in school. I found it was actually quite dangerous to be at home and safe to be at school and excelling there. So of course I had all kinds of aspirations. I wasn’t going to be like my parents, not have their very narrow thoughts on the world, which bordered on what I’d call backward thinking.

So I was out of the house and into a full-time job at 18, married at 20, was working on becoming a graphic artist, and then my marriage fell apart. And then I started drinking. And then I started driving. And one of those nights I just decided to just keep driving until I hit a rock cut. Fortunately, I came to my senses and realized I could kill someone else, not just myself. So I went back to work, but it caught up to me again. I was first diagnosed at age 23 with major depressive stuff, episodes. I got through that, went back to work, life carried on. I had another major episode a few years later, then carried on through work. TV Guide [where she was working] was scheduled to close in 1997, and so I applied for and got a job in Toronto, was going to be project production manager for a magazine. I came to Toronto, looked up somebody I thought was going to be a friend. I was almost raped on that first date. That was the start of a real tailspin. I started to experience symptoms again. When I told my boss I might have to take a few days off because of depression, she said, “I don’t care if you die, just make sure the next edition comes out.” So I checked into a hospital and said “Let’s forget about this.” So I stayed there a while. I was fired from my hospital bed. And then it just went from bad to worse. I was out of a job, in a strange city, I didn’t have any friends, my prospects were looking very bleak. By that point, I had lost contact with my family. So it was just getting bad to worse. I was going to lose my housing. I was down to eating a bag of apples a week, all I could afford once the rent was paid. I had to go on welfare, so I lost all my savings. And of course, I still couldn’t get a job.

This went on until late 1999. I went to see my doctor, and she said, “I think you need ECT.” I said, “ECT, like, that’s gotta be the worst, right? That’s the last-ditch intervention? Isn’t that kind of like using an axe to fix a hangnail?” She said, “In your case, you need an atom bomb.” I had been in and out of the hospital, in and out of a variety of talk therapies from ’97 to ’99 and had become so treatment-resistant. So I went in for ECT. I started to have psychotic symptoms, which I had never experienced before. I thought, “This can’t be getting me better.” I didn’t tell anyone because I thought I was already at the end of my rope at that point. So when ECT didn’t work, I went back and said, “What’s going on?” I was told I would never work again, I might as well get used to being … better give up my apartment, get used to a life that was going to be living on assistance, never having a job, never even getting close to the lifestyle I used to have. So at that point, I just went home and started making a plan. And within a couple of weeks I had amassed enough medication. I went to the most beautiful spot that reminded me of home, and there I decided to end my life. I won’t get into a whole lot of methodology, for obvious … I said that once to a reporter and they went into gory detail, so forgive me if I don’t go there. Anyway, I woke up, and all I was was sick. I think I threw up for about eight hours. But I felt even worse. I thought as low as you could feel to kill yourself, but when you fail in the attempt, you somehow reach even lower. Yeah. So I went back, asked all the questions, people still did not have answers. So I made another attempt. It probably was the best thing I ever did, because once you made a second attempt … I know this sounds silly, but by making a second attempt, it qualified me for Yvonne‘s group. You needed multiple attempts.

So this bouncy lady shows up in my hospital room, this is 12 years ago, and she was like, “How are you today?” I was feeling lower than a snake’s rear end in a wagon rut. She’s telling me how she was going to hold hope for me. I just told her to fuck off. She said, “Anger. I could work with that.” I thought she was some religious zealot coming from the airport. This was prevalent in hospitals at the time. Anyone could come in, people were coming in asking you to come to services out near the airport in a grab for money. That’s what I thought Yvonne was. So she kind of took off, and another doctor showed up. He was an older guy but was doing his residency in psychiatry. For some reason, his name has just escaped me. I can see his face right now. At any rate, he said, “What’s going on? We want you to come back into St Mike’s for more ECT.” I said, “No way I’m going back there because of what happened at the other hospital.” We talked about it. It was all about how I didn’t have a voice. I had always looked upon the doctors as people in places of authority, didn’t question them, they knew me better than I did. and so I left it at that. And after ECT, the way I was feeling before my attempts, I was scared, terrified. I didn’t want anything more to happen if I was going to live. And he saw this disconnect and said, “Why can’t you talk to the doctors?” I told him. He said, “How would you feel if I moderated that discussion and gave you some tools on how to have that discussion?” I thought, “This is weird.” And we did. It was horrible. I was in tears, just a quivering, blubbering mass of goo. But I had that conversation with my attending physician and changed the treatment. It was so empowering. I thought, “Wow, this is cool.”

He said, “How would you feel about going into a group?” I went, “What? You’re going to take a group intervention with me? I’ve been in group interventions, and no doctor has done that.” That was the PISA group. So we did that. I met Yvonne, again. It was like, “You’re not that bouncy religious zealot. You work here. OK.” So we went through this 20-week program. In that program, which borrowed from all kinds of different things, it looks at DBT, CBT, it borrows from all sorts of different models, all over the map. The neatest part is, she actually talks to the people: “What has worked for you? What has kept you safe before? How would you design this?” We had a hand in our own intervention. We became teachers for them. It turned the whole medical process on its ear for me. Yvonne, I love this woman, she’s setting the medical component on its head by making medical students take this program, getting nurses, students, some of us involved in this program. Some of us are becoming facilitators. I went through the group, learned so much. I learned about basic human rights, stuff I didn’t have a clue about. I grew up where the nearest neighbors were a bear and a moose. I didn’t know I had a right to say no, to be respected. I could have conversations with professionals and be treated on a different level. I learned about physical systems, mental systems, gaining autonomy with medication. I learned about relationships, how to change toxic relationships. I learned how to work on a scale of intensity, to identify where I was on my own map of illness, which interventions worked. Oh, wow. There were so many lessons there. I think everybody should take this thing. I think everybody could use this on a daily basis. I learned the physical parts, that it was not just all in my head. I learned about internal dialogues, self-talk, how to turn off a lot of self, the expectations of others, what is expected of me in different roles in my life, that I don’t have to be perfect all the time, the world will not end.

Yeah, so I got through the first 20 weeks, and I thought I really had it sussed. Things were looking up. I still didn’t have anything really going on. Then my best friend died by suicide. It sent me into a bit of a tailspin. Yvonne said, “You’re not ready.” I said, “You’re not kidding.” She said, “Do you want to do the group all over again?” I said, “Yeah.” That’s unheard of in other programs. After that, I then became a group facilitator. At the same time, she let me come into the studies unit, where she worked, and I got a lot of old skills back. How to do research. How to feel good in an office setting again. How to work on deadlines. How to work with other people. At the time I lost my job in publishing, it was the time computers were becoming prevalent, as opposed to typesetting. I had lost the ability to work in that field during the time I was ill. So in 2002, I went back to school. The work they were doing at the suicide studies unit was fascinating. They let me work on just about anything. I was quite happy: “OK, this is cool.” I went back to school, thought maybe I’d get my masters in social work. I still didn’t have a job, money. I got into the social services program, wherein you could major in addictions, mental health or criminal justice. I majored in mental health with a minor in addictions. It was eye-opening. Because then it was forcing me back from the world that was a safe space at the hospital, around people I felt safe with, and putting me back into the general public. At this point, I had all these new skills: “I am woman, hear me roar. I am a consumer survivor, hear me roar. I’m going into the field to help people, to help them navigate a system that is just so wrong.” My own fellow students couldn’t have a conversation with me. They had come from the education system and decided they wanted a career in mental health. They couldn’t relate. At some point, we were sitting in the lecture theater, and one professor asked someone to volunteer as a psych patient being brought into the ward for the first time. I was sitting with a hockey jersey, pants with a belt and running shoes. I immediately thought, “OK,” so I pulled out my laces and took off my belt. So I’m doing what’s common on the ward. People were literally moving away from me in their seats. Why? Because they thought there was some kind of contagion happening. They might catch mental illness. On the day we graduated, we were all going out for a beer and somebody came up to me and said, “I hope someday I can work with someone with a mental illness.” I thought, “People are all around you!”

So yeah. I’ve been out since 2002 quite publicly. And I’ve been advocating for people with mental health issues but also people who have made suicide attempts to be seen as people. Because it’s one thing to have a mental illness, there are all kinds of causes. But with suicide, it’s still kind of a no man’s land. People are afraid to come out because they think automatically they’ll lose their job. I know there are places where, if you disclose, they will covertly not hire you, though they advertise for consumer survivors. Back in the early ’60s, we had a problem with cancer. No one wanted to say the “c” word. People have likened a lot of mental health issues to diabetes: If you have medication, it’s under control. I’m not sure if I like that analogy, because this can be so different. But why are we so scared about this? And why are we so scared of people who have attempted suicide? One myth is that people will always be somehow damaged. I mean, I finally found a place where I can work now that values recovery in mental health. And I want to see more people take back their voices. Because so many of those voices are silenced because of the stigma, financial constraints, all the different taboos, cultural taboos. I think that this is a natural part of life, as natural as any catastrophic event can be. People have illnesses and die every day. Why is it so hush-hush when it comes to those of us who have felt trapped and isolated and scared and worthless and hopeless and that we try to either alleviate the pain or the human condition we think we’ve got or genuinely feel?

How’s that for the start?

You’ve mentioned that it hasn’t been easy taking part in this conference. Why?

I always knew I had advocates somewhere. The first to introduce me to CASP was Yvonne. But I know there were still some hurdles. The first was them asking me way back when to identify as a survivor, but as a survivor in the traditional context of bereavement. And when I said, “I’m here because of my own attempts,” everything just went kind of silent. I’ve been to workshops where there was name-calling. I’ve been to workshops where we were told right off the bat that we weren’t really welcome. So again I’ve advocated and we’ve had different workshops about the language of suicide, what it is to “commit” suicide, to be a “survivor,” to be “successful” or a “failed attempt” or a “successful attempt.” There’s such a weighty language all around suicide. I don’t consider myself a failure. I don’t consider myself … There’s a guilt factor in the broader population are putting on it, almost as if, if you didn’t die by suicide, somehow you weren’t really trying. So in that context, we’re all looking for something, some soapbox to get some sort of unmet need met. And I just look at them and just, “No, I’m just trying to have a conversation so it’s not about us, it’s about everybody trying to see the point that we’re all in this together.” Last year, when I went with Jenn Ward, the survivor chair for CASP, she saw that happen, where I was told that I really didn’t have a place. And she made it her mission this year to make sure I had a place. So this year is all about celebrating having that place. And it has been a huge, huge weight off my shoulders to have that happen this year. I was told it was gonna happen last year, and it didn’t. This year, it did. I couldn’t be happier. I just hope it continues.

What happened this year? You had mentioned you put together a list of everything that happened for attempt survivors.

Wow, this year. I don’t know if there was some cosmic shift or what. This year, it seemed like people got it. I guess for me, last year about this time we were doing this conference, and it was all about teaching people that attempters could still be valuable assets in the community. We had such a great response to that. Some of the people you met today, Cathy and Allan, spoke as well. And then we had CASP. And despite what happened to me at CASP, I met a lot of people who were very positive. At the same time as CASP, we had the national strategy for suicide prevention, we had people asking for Canada to have a national suicide prevention strategy established and have government funding to it. So we at CASP raised a glass to that. At the same time, there was a firestorm in the media. Over the summer, two hockey players had died by suicide. And the media got ahold of it and raised questions. A couple of former NHL enforcers got up and talked about the hardships of that role. When they did, the media again took a proactive stance. CTV, Bell Canada, which owns CTV, announced a mental health intervention where they were going to make substantial donations. CTV ran with it, ran its own thing on suicide. And there was this hockey … Can I say shitstorm? Where a couple of players came out in support of these tough guys. And then Don Cherry, like a national icon up here, he called these guys several derogatory names. The backlash from that went around the world. There was so much support for people who had mental health issues, who had attempted, who had died by suicide in the sports world. That set up a new conversation with their fans. It also allowed a lot of other celebrities to come forward and start conversations. In 2010, the “Do it for Daron” project had started, a youth initiative named for Daron Richardson, an Ottawa teen who died. That has been going like crazy. So all of a sudden, we’re seeing all these support things happen for people with mental illness and specifically around people who have attempted suicide. Not only are we coming out of the closet, as it were, people are not calling us weak and crazy and “Maybe you should have died,” really rude comments. All of a sudden, it’s taken a 180-degree shift.

So everything’s OK? Or what more needs to be done?

So like I say. I don’t know if this is just a blip. I hope not. I’ve found my voice now. I’m thick-skinned. I’m 54. I see every day as a gift now. I worry about the kids and how meanness can be over the Internet, some of the technology they don’t know how to control, and we don’t either. I hope the attitudes are changing and we don’t see a rollback position. There’s too much energy wasted on the bad feelings and the name-callings. Folks like us who have to feel nervous: Do we belong? Are we in the right place? When we enter a room, are we gonna feel welcome?

So you’re seeing the same people at the conference who were rude?

I’m not seeing the same people. Different people come. It’s quite a smaller group this year, I’ll be honest. But I think the core group is here. Because CASP moves around, in a different major city across Canada each year. Last year, it was Vancouver. Before, it was Halifax. All over the country. And so far this year, I have only heard good things. I’m also meeting new people this year who are very much behind what I’m saying. And people like you aren’t afraid to come up and talk to me, either. Because that used to be a thing, too. “Can we talk to her? Is it safe?”

Again, fear of contagion? Or they thought it would set you off?

Just a fear of the unknown. They didn’t know if I would say anything really controversial. I think a lot of it is, “Is she safe to talk to? She’s a person with mental illness, who tried to kill herself. After we talk to her, is she going to jump out a window?” Well, we’re sitting here, you’re typing, the window’s open, and I’m not jumping. We get it. What are some of the things they’ve done to you?

(I talk about my experiences, none of them that severe, and Judy continues.)

I’m coming out there because I want other people to come out and be a spokesperson and do this. It’s not like I have money or fame, anything to gain. I’m coming here on my own dime. Because this is my way to give back. I don’t want others to go through what I had to go through. I want people to have the conversation that needs to happen and not feel scared about it. It’s a conversation like any other one.

I feel like I ask this question of everyone. How to break down the stigma, the silence?

Well, you have a running shoe company in the States with a pretty good slogan: Just do it. Don’t be afraid. Just do it. It’s not like opening the can of worms means you have to go into a whole four-hour intervention with somebody. All you’re doing is having a conversation. And honest, heartfelt conversations don’t kill. Ignorance and stereotypes and silence, those things do kill. So let’s start the conversation and keep it going until it’s as common a conversation as anything else. I don’t think I’m saying anything profound here. This to me makes common sense. But what do I know? The conversation becomes how to make it easier for people to come out. For a lot of us, our voices have been taken over by professionals. These conferences are attended largely by doctors and those in the medical profession. Talking about us.

A lot has to do with the same social determinants as anything. A lot of people can’t afford to be here. A lot with suicide in their past are living with mental illness, living under some sort of subsidy, so to come to a three-day conference … We talked about this on the panel yesterday. It would have been impossible for Richard to be on the panel unless somebody subsidized his being here. It would be impossible for most to pay three nights’ accommodation, food. One of these junkets can easily cost over $1,000. I’ve made friends with a number of researchers, This is kind of our junket. We lecture, take a bit of time off. This is our vacation. We come as individuals, then hang out together.

How many people at a conference like this aren’t “out”?

Good question. Talk about the 4,000 who die each year in Canada. So the guesstimates are, for every 4,000 who die, another 10 for each person are affected. So, extrapolate to coworkers and friends. Now, when you consider the other 10 times the number for the people who attempt this year, 40,000, you tend to see how the numbers are skewed in terms of who’s at risk, who will be at risk in the future. I heard one doctor today come out. I thought that was cool. It was at a seminar I hadn’t planned on going to. And Dan this morning. So the professionals are starting to come out.

How did it go with the doctor?

Usually, the survivor panel happens on the third day of the conference. This year, it was right at the beginning, so we got all the baggage out and aired. Yesterday, I didn’t hear one negative comment. Nobody said anything. That’s a first. We heard a lot of positive stuff. I’ve met a lot of people since then who’ve said, “Right on.” I presented in Rome in 2010. Of the audience that we had, there were only two I didn’t know. Which is to say that nobody was interested in our topic. And at that point, this was the first international conference where they had attempt survivors, as such, presenting.

Which conference?

The 13th European Symposium on Suicide and Suicidal Behaviour. Anyway. Yvonne, I and another PISA graduate were going to present on the journey we had taken away from suicide. We had Yvonne’s group from Ireland watching. The Canadian delegation. And these two Belgian folks who actually wanted to hear the presentation.

That’s it?

That was it.

So it will take a while.

It will take a while. But I’m encouraged.

Go back to the doctor. Was it a moment? Were there murmurs?

It was actually part of his presentation. He told us what he did. He had it up in the PowerPoint. The methodology. How he was saved by his wife. Right on! We’re human!

And the reaction in the crowd?

No. Given that Dammy was there, Tim was there … These are past presidents of CASP. There wouldn’t have been any hooplah, I think.

Tomorrow, there’s an unusual session on euthanasia, assisted suicide, assisted dying and how they fit into CASP. What do you think about that?

I was at the session in Vancouver where it was pitched. I don’t know how it will go over. I think it’s gonna be controversial. We’ve just had a fairly recent example of where a woman was allowed to, she hasn’t died yet, but has permission from the government to end her life when she chooses. I can’t remember her name now.

So this is a national issue now.

Yup. CASP doesn’t shy away from being controversial.

But do you believe these issues come together?

Could. There’s still a lot of people of the belief that you and I would be aberrations because we have messed with God’s plan. I’m saying that with heavy-duty quotation marks. And a lot of that comes from a few of the bereaved survivors. I think we’d be kind of foolhardy not to look at it. And I think, I’ve looked at this issue myself, and I don’t know how I would be. Who knows in another 20 years. I already have some mobility issues. Where would I be if I were in excrutiating pain? Where will I be if I can’t make a contribution to the world, where I can’t clothe, eat, feed myself, look after myself? Those are all the things we have to look at. How to make a decision? Those are the questions I’m sure we looked at when we were facing suicide before: What was our life worth? I see you nodding your head, yeah. I don’t know where I’m gonna be 20 years from now. Am I gonna want to advocate for suicide prevention then? I don’t know. As long as people feel they can make a contribution, where society can help. I mean, we don’t live in a society anymore where it’s survival of the fittest. We’re here to take care of each other. We have programs in place, where the value of life is sacred. I don’t want the attitudes of, like, my parents to be around, where if you don’t pull your weight you have no worth.

So, where are we now?

I was waiting for you to pull out the perfect answer.

You think I’ve got one of those?

What have I not asked?

This is a totally different conversation than I’ve had. You and I don’t need to have this conversation. You get it. I had this conversation with a reporter from The Ottawa Citizen, who said, “I don’t know if I can have this conversation, because I am a Catholic.” Which was cool, because he put his biases out there: ‘”To me, you’re a mortal sinner.” I said, “OK, at least I know where you’re starting from.”

How did the conversation go?

I don’t know. It was long. It was good! He won all sorts of awards for that article. It was candid.

I’d like to read it.

Well, it would have been October 2003. Yvonne still has that thing hanging up on her wall. It won something like 13 awards. It was part of a series. But they were so nervous talking to me because they were afraid I was going to get triggered and they would get lawsuits.

What kind of questions did he ask?

Well, the whole thing was startling for him because he never considered asking before. I wasn’t sure how to talk about stuff, either. He said, “Off the record, tell me what you did.” I thought he would withhold it, but he didn’t. He went into great detail. I don’t know, I haven’t taken any courses in how to deal with the media.

How does the media up here deal with suicide?

Were you here yesterday? We had a reporter from The Globe & Mail for the plenary. He went on about how suicide contagion is not something the media should be responsible for. But we’ve seen where they report on methods, suicide styles, and all of a sudden there are clusters happening. Again, I felt bad. I hope nobody read what happened in the Ottawa thing and then … Yeah. I mean, that’s haunted me. I mean, it’s nine years later and I’m still thinking about it. The hardest part for me is how I’m coming across in the media. Do I sound like a crazy person? Do I sound like I have my head screwed on sideways? Thankfully, you haven’t asked dumb questions like, “How’s your medication?” because I’m not on any.

And you haven’t asked the follow-up question, “So why aren’t you on any?”

I’m still typing!

Good answer. No, I think the media has a responsible place to be in all of this. I don’t like the use of the word “commit.” It’s not a crime to be so low that you want to die. It’s criminal to have to be in that space in this day and age. It’s not anything criminal against the person. So yeah, the word “commit” is big. And then they go into the whole lexicon I have feelings about. What’s a “completed” suicide? “Successful”? “Failed”?

What are the terms you prefer?

Call it what it is. Suicide.

What if you’re still alive?

Then it was an attempt. I attempted to die. I mean, I have a whole problem with the word “suicide.” It gets lumped in with “regicide,” “homicide,” “infanticide” … You know.

You didn’t like the idea of the media talking about methods.

Just the contagion thing. And some people get hung up on how sensational it can be.

Maybe this is just me, but I worry that so many people go into their attempts not really knowing whether what they’re doing will kill them: “Maybe this will work.” I’ve spoken to people who are blind because of their attempts, or who are in a wheelchair. And I worry that others who never really meant to go that far ended up dying.

Then there are the people who thought they had chosen the ultimate _ jumping in front of train, out of a building _ and are still here, breathing through tubes or in a wheelchair. Part of that is what saved me. My ignorance. And maybe that’s not so bad. I don’t know if I messed up my head a little bit with my methods. People have thought jumping over the falls was pretty foolproof. We heard the mayor of Niagara Falls talking about people who jumped and lived. You could hear how nervous he was talking to this crowd yesterday. Again, I think it’s about normalizing the words. We do the same thing with funeral announcements. They say “died suddenly,” “died tragically.” They died! Leave it! And start talking about it at funerals and stuff, so again it’s a conversation. I’m not just a survivor of my own attempts. I told you about my best friend. I’ve also lost two clients, and this year I lost a colleague at my workplace. And courageously, the wife of my colleague at the service talked about suicide. And you heard a couple of audible gasps. But once they got over that, we had some conversations. And again, it brought it out of the darkness. That’s the conference theme this year. So let’s give it a voice, take it out of the closet. Call it what it is and get rid of all the crap around it.

I’ve asked my main questions. Sometimes I ask whether it’s actually better to never talk, to pretend it never happened.

No. Because nobody’s talking about it. It’s become a big part of my life. Hopefully in the days, months, years to follow, I’m just going to become Judy again. Not the “Judy, the crazy woman who loves to talk about suicide attempts because nobody else will.” Because it’s gonna become commonplace.

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