Talking with Cathy Naughton

It was the most simple of requests: “I would be happy to have you interview me regarding my experience with being suicidal.”

Cathy Naughton approached me after I reached out to the tiny number of peer-run crisis services across the U.S. in an effort to learn more about what they do. A soon-to-come post will focus more on those details.

Cathy is in the rare position of working in both a peer-run center and in a more traditional crisis center in California, where she’s the only staffer who’s “out” about her personal experience. “I feel like in the peer-run place, I can be more like somebody that has faults,” she says. “Whereas in the more traditional crisis respite house where I also work, I feel like I have to be more of, you know, a staff person.”

Here, she talks about some of the weaknesses in the mental health system, from overcrowding to non-inspiring environments, as well as what she’s told her three children.

Who are you? Please introduce yourself.

My name’s Cathy, and I’m a single mother. I have a BA in psychology, and I work at a crisis respite house. I’ll be starting full time in a week. I’ve been on call there and at 2nd Story. 2nd Story is a respite house where the people who work there are also people who’ve experienced mental illness issues in their own lives. It’s run by peers.

I feel like I have to go back for background. I was born in Hawaii. I’m white, I was teased a lot, and I also have a deformed hand. I was teased a lot in junior high. I think that was the foundation for a lot of my depression and being unable to deal with people. So that went on a daily basis for a couple of years. That was before bullying became this big deal. Back then, it was a non-issue, completely ignored.

I started using drugs back then, and alcohol, and I got clean and sober at 16 for the first time. I had seven and a half years clean and sober, and over that period of time I experienced huge depressive episodes but had no idea that’s what it was. I just knew I was fucked up. Yeah, I was trying to get through college and would, like, sit in class trying not to cry the whole class. I just knew that wasn’t normal, something was wrong with me. I never sort of linked the thought of any sort of diagnosis with myself. So after I had seven years clean and sober, I finally said, “Screw it, I’m not getting any younger.” I was like, “If this is sobriety, being this, like, emotionally depressed, then screw it.” And so I made the decision I was going to try using drugs again. And I started using some meth, which was just wonderful for a while because it was exactly the feeling that I was missing. You know, the up feeling.

OK. So, at 25, I became pregnant for the first time. And that’s when my life just collapsed. I made the decision to move in with the man, the father, and he became really abusive. Mainly emotionally. I was sort of trapped there. I wasn’t working anymore, I was pregnant, it was a horrible situation. That’s when I truly wanted to kill myself. Constantly. That was all I thought about. But I never really did anything because I was pregnant. If I tried, it would cause, like, premature labor, you know, the baby might try to be born as I was dying. I envisioned scenarios that were just horrible. So it wasn’t until the baby was born that I started cutting on myself. Some people do that as a drug, for an endorphin release, but for me, it was kind of practice. Every time, I went a little bit farther, bled a little bit more. And the point that I truly tried to kill myself was when my son was about 1 and I was fully convinced that he would be better off without me around. That just seemed like the truth. In depression, it’s like, it feels like it has always been and will always be. Like a physical pain. I just felt I completely screwed everything up.

So my son’s father took him away for a day. I got a razor blade. We just had a shower, not a bathtub. I just sat on the floor next to the shower with my hand under the water and proceeded to try to kill myself with, like, a slow kind of a slow process. And I remember as I went along, your body starts to shunt blood away from the non-crucial parts of your body. I got really nauseous, started throwing up. I had to go to the bathroom. I was trying not to pass out. I’m not sure how long it was. I would keep re-cutting if it stopped bleeding. I could have been there an hour or two, I don’t know. Eventually, I passed out. And they came home and found me and called an ambulance. And so I went to the hospital and was in the ICU overnight. I needed four units of red blood cells. I don’t know how many pints that is. And then I had my first experience being 5150ed after that. In the behavioral health unit.

And and in a way, it was like a big relief, because finally everybody knew how screwed up I was. I’d been sort of trying to be normal, trying to survive and not telling anyone how bad things were. At that point, it became apparent, obviously. And for some reason, after that time of trying to really kill myself, I came to the realization that, you know, the worst thing you could possibly do to a child is try to kill yourself, because they could never really come to terms with you, with what happened. It’s like the ultimate, what’s the word, abandonment. And it’s like, you can be a fucked-up parent, but as we grow into adults and can come to terms with our parents as we become adults ourselves, we can sort of work through that stuff. But if you kill yourself, your child never has the opportunity to do that. It’s like you just left them. So that knowledge and belief was at that point what kept me from trying to kill myself again. And there were times, I have had times, where I felt totally trapped: “Oh my god, I can’t kill myself,” you know, like it was just a terrible thing I couldn’t kill myself because I have these children. So when I’m in depression, that’s where I can’t go.

I have seven years clean and sober again now, and this time around I’ve been on medication, anti-depressants. And I still have ups and downs, but it’s not as down as it was without the medications. You know, it’s more manageable. Life is more manageable, now that I’m seeing someone and am on medications. Not everyone believes in medications, but I do personally for myself. There’s a big trial-and-error factor, just trying to find what’s right for you.

How old are your kids?

My oldest is 15, and I have an 11-year-old and a 3-year-old.

What do they know? What do you tell them?

I don’t. You know, I’m pretty honest with my kids, but at the same time I don’t want them to be afraid that I’ll do something. They know Mom has depression, takes medication for it. I try to keep an eye on them because it can be genetic, although there usually needs to be trauma along with the genetics to kind of kick into gear.

How were you treated in the emergency room? Sometimes the treatment of attempt survivors isn’t the most comfortable.

They just kind of, like, rolled me into a quiet corner and ignored me, which was kind of weird. I took an EMT class long ago, and I know the first thing they do is assess the scene, figure out how much blood was lost. Since I was losing my blood down the shower, they just saw, like, a pint and thought it wasn’t that serious. So it wasn’t until they had done a blood test that they realized how much blood I had actually lost. I was in and out of consciousness, feeling nauseous. And then I didn’t remember anything until I woke a day later.

What made you decide to study psychology?

They always say the fucked-up people go into psychology, right? I just, I always wanted to help people. From when I was young, when I was clean and sober at 16, I thought I would be a drug and alcohol counselor. Now I sort of ended up in mental health, which, mental health and drug and alcohol are very intertwined anyway.

How did you decide to be open about your experience?

I feel like, as someone who has been there in the behavioral health unit, I feel like it’s good for people to know that I’m not viewing them as, like, less than or stigmatized, you know what I mean? I’m not looking down at them. I’m on par, we’re all equal. And I think it can be hopeful, you can give people hope that someone that used to be there has been able to move on, that life can get better. At the same time, I don’t want to, like, I mean, it’s about them. I don’t want to be doing the, “Oh, it reminds me of me,” to be one of those people bringing it back to themselves. It’s not about the staff, it’s about the client.

I work in two places, one peer-run and one more traditional. It’s kind of interesting going back and forth. The peer-run is just a lot more egalitarian. I feel more relaxed when working there. I feel like I don’t have to act like I’m a professional, which would be hard to do sometimes. A part of me feels like I’m acting a role in my job, trying to portray myself as someone who has my shit together. I feel like in the peer-run place, I can be more like somebody that has faults. Whereas in the more traditional crisis respite house where I also work, I feel like I have to be more of, you know, a staff person.

Isn’t it possible that other staff at that more traditional house have had their own experience?

Yeah. Thinking of all the staff, though, I’m the only one there right now with major depression. It’s only me who’s “out” about it.

Should there be more encouragement to be out?

I think so. It would make it less of a stigma. But at the same time, you don’t want to weigh people down with your own shit. There’s got to be a happy medium somewhere. A case-by-case basis type of thing.

What’s the difference in your approach to someone when working in these two places?

I don’t know that I really am different when it comes to a one-on-one talk with somebody. You know, fairly often I do let them know that I’ve been there.

Is there anything you’d like to see changed in addressing and treating people who are suicidal?

The main thing that comes to mind is the lack of basic funding. One of the buildings I work in desperately needs paint. This dingy place is falling part. It’s depressing, you know, and you’ve got people coming straight out of behavioral health and trying to go back to some kind of life, and it should be more uplifting. Instead it’s this environment that’s, like, ugh. It would be so nice if it could be more put together. I think your surroundings do matter. And then we’ve got people who are being sent home when they shouldn’t be sent home. There are not enough places for them. It’s just sad to see sometimes.

Sent home from a psych ward?

Yeah, we’ve had people let out, people who can’t stay at the crisis respite house or 2nd Story because they’re stable enough to not be in the hospital, and the hospital releases them, but we’re not equipped. We aren’t a locked facility, and we don’t have a high staff-to-client ratio. So they just end up on the street or at home, if they have a home. So they end up back in the hospital, or worse.

What’s the trend like in funding these days?

I think it’s just, every year a little bit more gets cut.

How to make the conversation more comfortable about suicide?

The only way is to do it, talk about it. The more you talk, the more OK it becomes to talk about it. People have this fear of mental illness. You know, like people killing people, like the danger factor. And you know, depression, it’s like I’m only a danger to myself. I don’t know, it seems like some people think that there’s more to it, that I’m going to take a bunch of people out.

But that would take so much effort when you’re depressed.

Yeah.

How about coping, avoiding especially bad days?

I can talk to people, I can write, but honestly, my mind, it does go back to, like, “I wish I could” … I get these urges to hurt myself. And I just don’t. But the desire, you know, it’s almost like the first place my mind goes. Like a reactive response to stress, sadness. And then I just have to move beyond that and do something different.

How do you protect yourself in your work?

Sometimes I talk to people. You know, outside of work. Anonymously. But somehow, I’m just able to keep a split between work and life. It’s like I have this, yeah, you can’t get too involved because it’s not effective at all, you’re just another patient, you know? To do a job, it has to be a job.

Is there any reason why peer work isn’t as widespread as any other mental health service?

I think people with mental health issues are stigmatized, so who wants to put them in charge, right? You know, we have to see that we are everywhere, we are everyone. And we can be at different places, you know. And just because I, that one time, was cutting into my wrists with a razor doesn’t mean that I can’t be safe, happy, healthy 10 years later and be helpful to others. I mean, change is possible.

You’re a completely different person.

Right. Also, as a recovering drug and alcohol addict, that’s also a big stigma. People like to keep bringing it up. Like my kids’ father. Even seven years clean, they’re still like, “Are you using?” It just keeps getting brought up.

Finally, who else are you?

At this point in my life, I’m just trying to be quote-unquote normal, to just be a good parent and have a job and go to work. I’m dating again after, I guess, four years. I’m just trying to be a normal person.

And outside of work?

Right now, I’m doing the “Drive the kids to baseball, drive them over here” … There’s not a lot of down time outside of work. So. I try to get enough sleep.

And your youngest is still at home a lot of the time. Your answer might be different in a couple of years, when everyone is at school.

Totally.

Talking with Brandi Care Hicks

Brandi Care Hicks has been speaking publicly about her experience for almost 15 years. When depression hit her as a high-spirited, high-achieving teen, she didn’t realize what it was until after her suicide attempt. Now she urges teens and others to speak up before letting themselves be cornered by their own troubled thinking.

She’s noticing more people like herself talking publicly about their experiences. “The only thing that I think helps is hearing other people’s stories, knowing that it can get better,” she says. “I guess one of the biggest life lessons I’ve had is truly that we’re not perfect. You hear people talk about that, but trying to live up to that image is really just crushing you in the end.”

Here, Brandi talks about reaching out _ and knowing whom to reach out to.

Who are you? Please introduce yourself.

I am a married woman with two children, and I definitely have a typical happy life, you know, with a son and daughter and a great job. I’ve been with my corporation for almost 10 years now. Life is pretty good, but when I get the chance, I like to share my experience with depression in the past. It goes back over, gosh, close to 15 years now. I was in high school at the time, and I was the typical kind of happy-go-lucky teen, lots of friends, involved in lots of things, as far as sports and student government, and a part-time job. I got involved in a lot of social activities. In my freshman and sophomore years, I was kind of living the life, on a high of life. Everything was going great. I loved getting up for school, being with friends. Everything was sort of as it should be. I was very focused on school, I worked very hard, I stayed up all hours. I was just very energized, constantly go go go.

And I started to, in my junior year, I started to experience different things that, you know, at the time, were part of being a teen, but it was over time that things started really changing. Not so much external but internal, feelings of hopelessness, emptiness, lot of sadness. Many nights I found myself crying myself to sleep. It was really hard to concentrate in school. I could see my grades slipping, and I could not understand what the teacher was saying. I got things so easily in the past. I just couldn’t seem to keep up anymore. I felt like I was slowly losing myself. I wasn’t enjoying sports, and there were several days where I would basically claim to be sick, where it was more sadness or not being able to get through the day. Just to not have to go to practice. I ended up sleeping all afternoon. It was all sort of slowly compiling, but I never told anyone how I was feeling. I didn’t even complain about the tiredness. I started gaining a little weight. I was filling myself with food to have that full feeling. You go down the list of symptoms of depression, and I had every one, but I never once thought I was depressed. I didn’t share it with anyone and was such a busy teen that no one really questioned when I missed a practice or social gathering. “Of course she’s tired, she has so much going on.” So no one was questioning the changes. It also wasn’t very visible. I still kept a smile on my face and tried to keep things normal. Under it all, I felt like I was losing myself. I didn’t know who I was. The Brandi everybody knows was no longer who I felt inside. I was struggling. There were two different worlds getting farther apart, and I started to daydream about ways to end the misery. I distinctly remember being in biology class, feeling so defeated: “I can’t do this anymore. I can’t get through each day.” And when it got to that point, I started thinking of different ways to end this quickly, painlessly. “I don’t want to go through this pain anymore.” It was such a deep-seated emotional pain, it was hard to articulate to anybody else. Also, I was that friend that everybody relied on. I prided myself on being the one you could come to. Even the thought of sharing with my friends didn’t cross my mind. It was not part of who I was. I was the strong one who could figure things out. I was not one to complain. It wasn’t a question. It never crossed my mind. So when I started having those thoughts, kind of fleeting at first: “Oh, just to end it all.” But I wasn’t really serious. I was kind of fantasizing about ending my misery. I would try my best, when really feeling down, to surround myself with friends, try to get myself out of that, what I thought was a funk. I tried to focus on others, be cheerful, do what I could to put a smile on my face. It was kind of how I led my day to day.

I was turning 17 at the time. My brother had friends over one night, very last minute. He’s 18 months older than me, so his friends were kind of my friends. We hung out and had a good night, where I had my mind off of things. I really enjoyed myself. Then the next morning was a Sunday, a day I hated. Because Friday nights and Saturdays as a teen are an escape from reality, from commitments, schoolwork and being the Brandi everyone knew me to be. Then back to reality on Monday. I hated Sundays leading up to that week of responsibility and everything to be done. I needed to read an English book, and I distinctly remember lying on my parents’ bed trying to read and getting to the end of the page and having no idea what I had read. I could not keep my mind on the book. My mental capabilities were not there. And my mind just started going again through this pain. I was trying to work through that: “I just don’t want to feel this way anymore.” I thought, “I’ve got to write all these thoughts down.” They were racing in my mind. I grabbed a notepad and started writing. My thoughts turned into maybe a page or so, then the next page was, “Dear Mom,” and I started a suicide letter to my mom. Before I started the letter, the thought of the Chesapeake Bay Bridge came to my mind. It was a quick thought, but it was, “I can do this.” I don’t think I’d seen anything recently about it, but for whatever reason, that moment it jumped into my mind. I would hit water, go unconscious, feel no pain and this all would be over. A simple answer, I thought. “I can’t go on.” And I had mentally come to the conclusion. And started writing this letter to my mom. It was really hard. I started crying, but at that moment I had made that decision. “This is it. No turning back.” I kind of got tunnel vision. I had no second-guessing what I had to do. While writing that, one of my brothers asked me to give him a ride to the local marina. I quickly covered my tears up. “Sure, no problem.” I finished the letter. That was kind of the moment of getting me out the door.

I put the note between the two seats. We had a normal conversation, but I realized I had no money for the toll for the bridge, so I asked him for cash for Taco Bell on the way back. He gave me a few dollars. He got out of the car, and I said, “I love you.” It’s not like I said that every single time, but it was not too ordinary that I said that to him. He left, and again I kind of broke down: “Oh my gosh, I’m really about to do this.” I really had tunnel vision. I quickly thought of him, my mom and dad and my other brothers, and I really put that to the side. “I’ve got to end this pain.” That was my tunnel vision, to get to the bridge. There was all this traffic that day, and I was so frustrated: “I need to do this now.” Long story short, leading up to the jump, on the way there I had picked a spot where I thought I would jump. When I got to that spot, I literally pulled the car over, stepped up three steps from the railing, and jumped. There was no hesitation. There was no second thought. I think I at least had thought of putting my hazards on. I didn’t want others to get hurt.

I remember you know, the three words in my mind when I jumped: “This is it.” Those three little words. And I felt pitch black. Sometimes they say when someone is about to die, they have flashbacks of childhood or dreams of what they’ll miss. I had none of that. Pitch black and three words, and I remember feeling my stomach drop. Afterwards, experts said that where I jumped was close to 130 feet. I’m not sure. I remember hit the water, like hitting brick. It was an incredible impact. And really, it was just shock then. I actually opened my eyes under water, seeing brown all around me, thinking, “Oh my gosh, I don’t know which way to go, will it end here? What’s happening?” And I instinctively swam to the top and let out a huge scream, like pure horror, because I never had in my mind thought that it wouldn’t work, that I would not die that day. So shock and survival instantly kicked in. I didn’t know what to do. I certainly felt numb in the bottom half of my body. Incredible pain, like I had never experienced before. And at some point a boat came towards me and threw a life jacket. They at some point threw me a rope and pulled me in. But I was in excruciating pain. I was screaming in terror. My body was like, every single tiny movement was shooting horrible streaks of pain. I was in shock mode, like people were trying to help and I was accepting the help, but at the same time I was kind of screaming at them because my body hurt so bad. “Don’t touch me!”

They had to drive me back to the coast, of course, and horrible pain. If you think about it, it was choppy water. I think they tried to go slow, but I was just screaming the whole time. They called 911, and a trauma helicopter was there. I was transported to shock trauma in Maryland. And all of this was still a blur. I guess I was taken in, given a bunch of tests and all that. Again, I’m not sure how much time passed. Before I saw family and friends, a nurse came in. At this point, I’m not sure if she was a medical nurse or a mental illness nurse. She was coming in and saying, “Do you think you’re depressed?” That was the first time that word was associated with everything I was experiencing. I never thought, “Oh, is this depression?” I never associated it with me when I heard it before. I thought it was something someone experienced because of a specific event. Someone goes through a horrible divorce, or a mom loses a child to a car accident. I never thought it happens to a happy-go-lucky teen that has everything going for them. I honestly don’t remember how I reacted to her, but I remember thinking, “Is that it? Maybe it is. I don’t know.”

My parents came in and, long story short, I didn’t stay in shock trauma long. We tried one mental illness program that night, but it was not the right fit, so later that night I ended up at a psych unit of a hospital in the area. I ended up there a week. I kind of had full inpatient for a week. I remember being there, and maybe it was the first or second day, but at some point I was waiting for a group session and I was looking through a magazine about mental health, and I saw a list about depression, the list of symptoms. And I’m seeing “feeling of sadness, emptiness, helplessness, loss of concentration, overeating …” I’m going, “Check, check, check.” For me, that was the moment I truly associated it with what I was going through. I could’ve gotten the help! It was just a realization. For a period, I had a real high: “I know what this is, this is curable!” I had this sense of energy. “I’m going to figure this out and be 100 percent again! I’ll get meds, it’s gonna be great.” I really went through this high. And then reality hit. It’s not that easy. I was definitely comforted that there was a name for this, that other people had gone through it, that it was treatable, but it was a hard reality. You don’t cure this overnight. That was the start to my long road to recovery. Years of therapy, years of meds for some time.

And I started sharing my story. It sort of came about from sharing with friends informally, just opening up and saying, “These are my true thoughts and feelings.” And then, I guess, you know, stories just get out, and someone reached out for an interview for the newspaper. Then Oprah, and “Dateline” and different magazines. It kind of turned into an opportunity for a mental health awareness organization wanting me to speak at one of their events. And then it built to other events. So this obviously transpired over the years. I think it was 15 years, because it was May of ’98. A quick recap: I started going back to school senior year, but it was really hard to focus on my health and getting better. I needed to say “no” to a lot of activities. I had been elected president of my class, I had field hockey, all of these things already set to do that I had to say “No” to. I couldn’t be this everything to everyone else while trying to get myself healthy again. I got approval for home schooling, and it was a huge blessing. I started a new part-time job, found new friends, discovered myself all over again through a different avenue instead of being the  Brandi everyone knew me to be at high school. I started to figure out who I was again, and that was a huge part of my recovery. And I stayed close with the good friends I had before. A very close network had been there for me.

I remember going to college and being very scared that this could hit again. I remember, it’s kind of embarrassing and silly to say, but I remember having a freshman biology class and actually studying and grasping it. It was such a good feeling: “My mind, it’s healthy again. I can learn, I can study and grasp things.” Kind of that validation for me: “I am back to that person I am.” I went to one of the counselors on campus just to share my story: “I need to tell you this, to have someone on campus to talk to in case I have feelings again.” Kind of a safety net. When it happens again, I don’t want to have to rehash the story. I didn’t necessarily go to her on a consistent basis, but I knew that if something was to change, I could go to her.

So that’s where that kind of brings me to today. I have a whole program I go through. I show the “Dateline” piece that NBC did, I tell the story, then I show them a slide show at end, show how my life is today. I lead a very successful, “normal” life. It’s not perfect by any means, or happy-go-lucky either. In the past couple years I had bouts of anxiety. I’ve had periods of sadness. I’ve gone back to the therapist as an adult to get a handle on situations I’ve gone through. It’s never been that severe. In my opinion, it’s because I accepted it as an illness. And I know the triggers that cause stress. And I just talk about it now. I have an amazing husband who lets me vent, lets me cry for no reason, talk through my emotions. I have great friends. I have a girlfriend now who works with me, we were friends in high school, and we meet for lunch every week. I joke that she’s my counseling session. It’s my chance to chat with someone who knew me through it all. I can open up to her and know she’s not going to judge me. It helps provide that perspective, that reality perspective. Sometimes we can get so deep in our thoughts that we’re not thinking logically anymore. Depression really altered my mental capabilities, and I look back now on those thoughts, and it was really a depressed mind making those decisions. I can see the difference in how my healthy, logical mind operates and how it operated before. I have to remind myself to keep that healthy, logical mind. If I don’t tell others how I’m thinking, I can easily get into the trap of thinking it’s logical. If I don’t have someone to put it into perspective for me, I can easily get sucked back in. I’m much more open, I talk much more about my inner thoughts and feelings. Again, it doesn’t take away the challenges, but it’s manageable.

And I feel I’m in a really good place. I like to share my story because I want people to know that depression or thoughts of suicide can happen to everyone. And if I had known depression could happen to an outgoing, happy girl, and if I had opened and up and shared what I was feeling, I feel that if I had done it early enough, one, maybe I had never gone into thoughts of suicide, I could have coped, or, if I had gotten to that point, at least I could have had that hope that it was treatable. But I didn’t have any of that. I didn’t have the education. I didn’t communicate. I wasn’t open with others. So that’s kind of my long-winded story. But that’s the journey I walk people through.

How do you know how to find the right people to confide in?

I don’t know if there’s a black-and-white answer. You have to know who your friends are. It’s all about who you trust. I try the best I can to say, “This is a lot to put on another teen. They may not know how to react. That’s OK, you can share, but you have to also share with an adult, whether it’s a friend’s parent, a teacher you’re comfortable with, a pastor, your own parents, but you’ve got to find someone who logistically knows how to get you professional help.” I really feel, too, you really should speak to a professional. Even if you open up to a friend or parents, this is someone who has an unbiased view and can assess the issues. There are teens out there going through the aches and pains of being a growing teen, and some of it is figuring it out. A parent isn’t going to be able to identify that. It’s getting to a professional. I also feel that a big part of society is getting people to give that person a chance to be there for them. What I mean is, we talk about how to react if someone does share. You have to take it seriously. Don’t take as a joke. You’ve got to tell an adult. Don’t worry about if they’re not going to be friends with you. You could have saved their life. One of the things I still deal with today, I still get little emotional, is how my attempt affected my friends and family. I never gave them the opportunity to be there for me. I never gave them that chance because I chose to keep it all inside. It still breaks my heart today. My friends probably had that question, “Why didn’t Brandi think I was a good enough friend? Did she think I wasn’t there for her?” For me, that’s so far from the truth. And it had nothing to do with my parents being there for me. It was about me accepting that responsibility and being OK to share my inner thoughts and feelings, to live up to that image. You know, it just gets to me. It’s letting people know how important it is and letting people know that if someone shares, they’re putting a lot of trust in you. They’re being brave, trying to get help for you. So there’s no black-and-white answer knowing who that right person is, but knowing the importance of determining who that person is.

You mentioned living up to an image. So many people want to appear perfect and fear disappointing others by not being good enough, especially teens. And suicide rates are high among doctors and lawyers, for example, people who push themselves. How do you get over this?

It is a huge hurdle. The only thing that I think helps is hearing other people’s stories, knowing that it can get better. I guess one of the biggest life lessons I’ve had is truly that we’re not perfect. You hear people talk about that, but trying to live up to that image is really just crushing you in the end. I found that since I opened up and became more open in sharing with people in general, people are drawn to others that admit their shortcomings or things they are going through, being open to saying they need help. I’ve found that people are even more drawn to me when I open up because they can relate. “She’s not up on that pedestal. She’s just like me.” I had so many e-mails, letters written to me, some strangers saying, “Thank you,” knowing someone is out there who’s been through this. A typical teen who had so much going for them. It brought me so much comfort. I’m still very high-achieving. It’s part of my personality that won’t go away. I work so hard at work. But I’m very open about work-related and other challenges. What am I struggling with? And being able to laugh about it. I know it’s pie-in-the sky stuff, but you kind of have to get back to those principles, educating people that this is life and nobody’s going to be perfect. It has helped me connect with people more. I have more sympathy for people going through this. You build stronger relationships, networking, through sharing experiences. When you allow yourself to be vulnerable, it strengthens friendships. Teens are just learning how to build relationships, how to trust people. I don’t think there’s a magic answer. Just continuing to talk and open up about the positives.

What have been some of the more striking reactions to your talks? And how have the reactions changed over the years?

There have been surprising reactions. One stands out. I did a parent night once, and the parents were very grateful. They got a lot of insights, and we talked about how to break down stigma. And then I had a mother say to me, “I don’t want my daughter to speak to the guidance counselor because I’m afraid she will put it in her file and it’s going to be in her file that there’s a mental illness issue, and that could prevent her from getting into some colleges.” And I was really taken back. And she was being completely honest. This is really the thought in parents’ minds, how it will affect in the long term. I spoke about the mental illness programs at colleges, that, “Really, your child’s health _ their life _ should be number one, not their education. This is her health you’re talking about, and you need to put that first, and she needs to speak to someone. In my mind, what college you get into is not important at this stage of the game.” And I’m sure it went in one ear and out the other.

Do you think it’s easier for a younger person to come back from an attempt, and why?

Unfortunately, I don’t think I have a good perspective on that. I haven’t had that mindset as an adult, so it’s hard for me to really compare. I guess I would say that of course, in general, teenagers have a different kind of pressure on them, image-wise, and being able to deal with the emotions and hormones of everything they’re going through, so I definitely think it’s different. Of course, there’s just the pure opportunity they have, many more years, and they are kind of young in adult life to kind of restart, and that’s a benefit to them. When it happened, I had not graduated high school, and it gave me an opportunity to refocus, to learn who I was again in order to then get healthy, go to college, kind of restart. I would think potentially it would be harder as an adult. Certainly they have a lot more responsibility if they’re a parent, have a job, a career. Taking time to fully recover, get treatment … I was in inpatient for a week, I went through a lot of therapy, and I had to step back from a lot of responsibility. Being class president, having a part-time job, I had to step away from all of this to focus on myself to get better. I was in a situation where I was living with my parents and could do all that. I would think in that state of mind, it probably would be harder in a place in life where you can’t push everything aside and focus on yourself.

And do you think it’s easier for a younger person to speak openly, or publicly, about it?

I don’t think I would have great perspective on that, either. It probably depends on the personality of that person. I got a very welcoming, supportive reception. I did have a great support network to begin with, and it was very healing to share my story, to speak afterwards. There is that stigma when you’re going through the issues, but it’s probably equally difficult if you’re not necessarily someone who opens up and shares about challenges. I think it would be the same regardless of your age.

Should more people be coming out about their experience? And what have you noticed in terms of openness about this topic in the years that you’ve been talking about it?

I think absolutely, I don’t see any reason why someone who experienced this should not share it with others. I think obviously there’s a time and place for everything. I think wherever there’s an opportunity to share with others, you know, the hard time you’ve been through, how you’ve come through, in my mind, only good comes out of that. It helps people connect to it. I absolutely think it’s important. For me, I’ve definitely seen a difference in people being open about it, but I couldn’t tell you if it’s a true evolution over time or it’s really just me being different from a teen to an adult. When going through it all, I didn’t know I was depressed. I didn’t equate someone kind of like myself being depressed, having a suicide attempt. Over the years, talking to people, it seems much more open now. I’ve spoken to so many high schools, where no one ever came to us about that topic. I feel like I see it more on the news, celebrities opening up about the struggles they had. I don’t know whether I’m more attuned to it. But growing up, the only significant exposure I remember having, at least with celebrities, was, of course, Kurt Cobain. But that was really the only significant event. I don’t remember hearing about depression or bipolar or other mental illnesses. I feel like I’m hearing it more now. At least personally, speaking with friends, I feel like in my network of friendship support, everyone is much more open to sharing about tough times. You don’t have to act like everything is great all the time. I feel I have a good support system where all is open, we can vent.

If you could change anything about the way society talks about suicidal thinking, what would you change?

I think the biggest thing about suicidal thinking that I would want to come across better, from my experience, is if you’re truly depressed or have suicidal thoughts, you’re not necessarily _ your mind is not fully healthy, thinking rationally. It’s not like a rational person saying, “OK, I don’t want to be here tomorrow, and I’m making this choice and giving up.” If you haven’t experienced it and the thinking, just seems so hard to understand, it’s like, “Just talk to someone. Why would you choose to end your life?” If you’re working with a mind that doesn’t see things clearly, basically your own mind is telling you lies. When I think back to the person I was, the thoughts I had, I almost feel it wasn’t me. Yes, it was me because I recall those thoughts. But the Brandi I am, I’m a logical person. But my mind was not operating in that way for several months. People told me my mind was sick. I needed to somehow get treatment to get healthy in order not to go down that path. It truly is your mind not functioning 100 percent.

How about any changes to the way suicidal thinking is treated, in a mental health sense?

You know, I read an article recently. I can’t remember where or the whole context, I just remember a mother talking about the challenges with her mentally ill son, the challenges she had with him behaviorally. She felt the only help she could get from the system was if she basically got in trouble with the law. If his actions somehow broke the law, because then he could get treatment through that. I don’t know, what I wish could be different is, we would really look at mental illness as a _ something on its own needs should be treated, regardless of situation. If behavioral issues or other things are associated, don’t wait for that to trigger treatment. You have to look out ahead of time to get to what the key problem is. As opposed to not offering the resources when they’re needed.

Anything to add?

I feel the need to kind of go back to it: For those people who haven’t experienced it directly, who don’t really understand mental illness, I guess I would really urge them to get educated to learn more about it, to learn that it is an illness, that it’s not something you can snap out of. That’s part of the stigma, like, “What’s wrong with you? Pick yourself up!” It just puts guilt back on the person if it’s truly a mental illness. Your brain is not healthy. You need to get treated for it. It’s not something you can just snap out of. That’s really hard for people to get. Some people think it’s almost a choice, choosing to have a bad day. It’s so much more than that. You just want people to learn more about it so if they have a friend, a family member, they can be more sympathetic and let them know they’re not alone, they can get help, they can’t just figure it out themselves.

Someone wrote to me saying her father told her that her attempt was just a way to get attention. What would you say in her place?

That’s a hard one. What would I say to him? I think you want to know where he’s coming from, his history or exposure. I think the key is to go back to the facts. Men are pretty logical. I’m speaking generally here. But maybe going back to the facts: “There are symptoms associated with an illness. I am seeing those symptoms. I’m having these thoughts.” I don’t mean to put words in her mouth. To go through all of those symptoms and say, “I need help. I need treatment. It’s the way my brain is thinking, and I want to get healthy again.” It’s helping her get out of the emotional state of things: “It’s just how I feel.” However she can articulate that there’s a clear list of symptoms she’s experiencing. Mine was not a call for help because I really thought I was going to end my life. I wasn’t doing it so people would know I need help. But I can understand if someone’s gotten to the point where they don’t know what else to do. So they’re doing this. “But hey, if you can help me, figure this out, find another way.” … I’ve heard that from several other people. If someone in the family is having a hard time with it, it’s usually the father.

Talking with Mike Bush

“I changed from being a senior psychiatric social worker one day to being a mental health user the next day on the opposite side of the table. A very strange kind of bizarre experience.”

Mike Bush is one of the many people in mental health who’ve had their own experience with suicidal thinking and actions, though few speak out as openly as he has. I came across him while researching mainstream mental health groups in the UK, intrigued by their focus on campaigns for rights and social justice. Mike played an early role in organizing support for loss survivors after losing his father to suicide four decades ago. Years later, he became suicidal himself. Clinical depression, he found, was far harder than bereavement _ and he feels he still hasn’t adjusted to his father’s death.

Here, Mike talks about finding Christianity during his recovery, his latest campaign to help other caregivers protect themselves from stress and the tight bonds between the poor economy and despair: “You slash people’s services, benefits, the economic situation is in peril, it has a very detrimental effect on well-being. This is what’s happening.”

Who are you? Please introduce yourself.

I’m, well, I suppose I wear a lot of hats. I’ve been actively suicidal myself, and I’ve been bereaved through suicide. I lost my father over 40 years ago now. I worked 30 years as a mental health social worker. So I’ve been involved in lots of campaigning on suicide issues, particularly bereavement, a very important part of suicide prevention. If you don’t support those left behind, you’ll get further suicides, you know? Certainly in Britain, which has one suicide every 90 minutes, every suicide has six to eight people who are deeply affected, but many more than that are also affected. So yeah, it’s been a central issue for me ever since my father died. I’ve been involved with a group for 15 years, and I’m involved in setting up another group with better information and networking between agencies.

How much did losing your father affect your own experience? And how much time has passed?

Research shows that if you’re bereaved, you’re more likely to have mental health problems and an increased risk of suicide yourself. Obviously any great trauma, like losing someone through suicide, takes its toll. I don’t think I ever reached adjustment. I lost my mother from cancer when I was 15. It was over 40 years ago when this happened, but my father’s death was three years later and that feels sort of like it happened five or six years ago. More recent in memory. I think you don’t ever reach an adjustment through losing someone through suicide. At best, you reach an accommodation. I’ve adjusted to my mother’s loss, but my father’s feels like it happened far more recently. All bereavement is really hard, but with suicide you’re bereaved by that person’s hand, so that makes it uniquely difficult for those left behind. A whole kaleidoscope of emotions and feelings swirling through your mind constantly and “What if?” questions that people torture themselves with. There’s a book, “A Special Scar,” that says bereavement is like a personal holocaust. It really seriously messes up people’s lives. That’s why I’m passionate about people getting support and help. The best way is peer support. They better understand what it’s like.

You’ve been pushing for more support for this over the past 30 years?

Yeah! A long time

What was support like back then?

Well, we set up a group in the early ’90s. At that time, there was no support at all in the area. We had people coming from all Yorkshire, from all the way around. There was just nothing else around. The situation’s improved in the more recent years. There are quite a few branches around for survivors of bereavement suicide. I’m in the process of setting up a branch. They have a national helpline people can ring. I have a national campaign going on 38 Degrees calling for a national suicide bereavement service. It’s done really well in Australia. I think we need the same over here. In Britain, it really depends on where you live. Some have quite decent support, others none at all.

Where did you get support?

When my father took his life, it was just what my sister and I could provide to each other. Really tough. And so when I worked as a mental health social worker in Leeds, in the early 1990s, one day I saw a letter on the bulletin board about the idea of setting up a group for those bereaved. The words jumped off the page at me. A great idea. I contacted the mental health chaplain, he had lost his father through suicide. We set up the Leeds organization of survivors of suicide. We used to meet twice a month for a couple of hours. And we would see people individually, because groups are not for everyone. We’d like people to come to the group if possible. We learned an awful lot about suicide issues. We’d get so many different stories.

What surprised you?

It was not at all uncommon for us to be dealing with families with more than one suicide. If somebody close to you takes their life, it’s like the Rubicon’s been crossed, like it gives you permission to follow the same. When my father died, I sort of wanted to do it, to be with him. I’ve worked with a family where there have been three suicides. So this is why it’s so important that you try to provide the best support to people. To prevent this happening. We can’t bring people back to life again, but we can enter into that suffering and share with it. One of the first things people tend to ask the support group is, “Have you been bereaved by suicide?” We can say that. I’ll always remember a man who came in, he had been seen by a clinical psychologist for two years, but he said, “I’ve found it more helpful tonight than those two years. This has been indescribably helpful to me.” One thing we also found is, the majority of people who came were mothers, girlfriends, wives. We’d rarely see men. That doesn’t entirely surprise me. In Britain, two-thirds of suicides are male. Issues around masculinity, be strong, you can’t show feelings. A lot of men aren’t good with the emotional stuff.

How did you get into your work as a mental health social worker?

I got into it quite honestly because my mother was a very caring, supportive person. She helped a lot of people locally, and she set me a really good example. And I kind of got involved in volunteer work in school. I realized when I was 13 or 14 that I wanted to be a social worker. So it was before I lost my mother and father. But part of going into mental health social work is what happened to my father, yeah.

How have you protected yourself, with all of the work you do?

I lost my father when I was 18. I kind of buried myself in my work. It was my way of coping. I didn’t want to be emotionally close to people. I didn’t want to get too close to anyone because of the impact of the loss. So I kind of threw myself into social work. And you can work 24-7 in social work if you want to. It was my way of coping, rightly or wrongly.

Did you feel like you had to save people?

I just wanted to be involved in helping people across the board. Obviously, my personal experience informed my understanding. So yeah, it contributed to it in that sense.

Did you tell people about your experience?

Not in my professional role, no. But certainly in the work I did with the loss group.

(I mention how it might be helpful for clients to know the person they’re confiding in has had their own experience, but professional boundaries prevent that.)

On occasion, I have told. There are times when it’s appropriate to disclose, and I have done it. But there are other occasions when it doesn’t feel appropriate to do that. So you have to use your judgment about that.

How did your own suicidal experience come about? Your e-mail mentioned overwork.

This was many years later. I had far too much on my plate. I was doing two social work jobs, covering for someone else who was out for months. I was working in a tough area with the community health team. Also, I was on three or four different management committees, plus I was working a lot with people bereaved by suicide, straight after work or sometimes during my lunch break. Also, I was suffering with a bad sleep disorder and was tired all the time. I was a union rep. I was struggling but basically coping. My boss was very good. But unfortunately for me, our boss left and the boss from hell came along, who literally would scream and shout, throw things about. I had three colleagues who were so distressed they were crying on my shoulders. I would take up grievance procedures with management.

Long story short, stress builds up and up. Anxiety, not sleeping for days, and everything was spinning out of control. I just couldn’t cope, go on any longer. I got on very well with the manager of the community psychiatric nursing, we talked things through, and we both realized I needed help, to get away from it. She drove me to see my general practicioner, my GP, and I went in to see her and she said to me, “You know a lot more about mental health than I do. What do you want to do?” I said I’d assessed myself as needing to see a consultant psychiatrist.

I changed from being a senior psychiatric social worker one day to being a mental health user the next day on the opposite side of the table. A very strange kind of bizarre experience. I was so used to being in the helping role. And now finding I was useless and needing help myself. Very difficult. I can’t put into words how much I learned, what real mental distress was actually about. No academic learning can give you that. That lived experience. It was an education in many ways.

Any examples of what you learned that you had thought you knew?

It made me understand how useless and vulnerable you can feel, frightened, terrified out of your mind. You have no energy at all. Just walking across the room was like climbing Everest. I couldn’t decide whether I wanted a cup of tea or coffee, whether to turn left or right. These simple things seemed too much. Depression consumes every atom of your being. That’s what makes it so difficult to deal with. It changes your whole way of thinking. You lose all hope. You lose all … yeah. You just lose everything. Even my sense of taste. Everything used to taste like cardboard. It affects you in every sphere of your life. I’d have given everything I owned for five minutes of respite.

How does it compare with the sadness of losing someone? Is sadness sadness, or are the two different?

Completely. Grief bereavement is very hard. But clinical depression is far harder. It affects you in a far deeper way. Yeah.

How did you get out of it?

I was very lucky. Two things: I have an exceptionally good wife and an exceptionally good psychiatrist, who was very good at listening and understanding what I went through. Very therapeutic in the whole interaction. He was also very supportive to my wife. He really was excellent. I can’t say I felt the medication helped me, very strong antidepressants, tranquillisers and mood stabilizers. I’m not sure how much that helped or not. A lot of drugs didn’t seem to work. The best medication was how he was with me. I think it was the passage of time, thinking things through, that played a part. Wife, friends.

Interestingly, I became a Christian. One day when I felt particularly suicidal, I felt myself turning to the local church. I’d always been a strong atheist, but a very good friend of mine had been a priest, a vicar, and he’s just a great guy, we were very close friends. He said one day, “Come in and join is, the water’s warm.” His smile would light up the room. That phrase was going round in my mind when I found myself walking to the local vicar’s house. Something was strongly saying to me, “Go see the vicar.” I did. He was in, very supportive. He talked to me about something called the Alpha Course, an introduction to Christianity. I basically became involved with that. Intellectually, I couldn’t take it, but I did pick up the love and concern that was around me. Particularly a woman who had suffered from depression, she gave me the hope that things would get better. What she said, but also how she said it. To me, it was my first conscious experience of the love of God, you know?

I started going to the church and people asked, “Can we pray for you?” I felt like that was something really important. It acted as validation. I wasn’t getting that from psychiatric services because of professional boundaries. It was something that mattered to me a great deal. We are three elements: mind, body and spirit. I feel there’s a spiritual dimension to depression. We are these three elements for optimum health. These three elements are interrelated. So that was an important part of my recovery, becoming a Christian. My faith is very important to me now.

How long did it take before you felt well?

I began to sort of pull out of my depression after about 12 months. You can imagine a big factory, like a big power plant, with the turbines and generators, and in my case it was like all of a sudden one of the generators came to life, started to move, then got faster, then others started to work. I felt life returning to me, coming back into me. A wonderful feeling. The darkness lifted, and I started to see life in colour. It was the most wonderful thing, and once it started to pick up, it picked up pretty quickly.

It became very important to me that I became involved in user and carer voluntary work. I threw myself into that heart and soul. It got me using my brain again, meeting with people. It wasn’t formally written into my care plan. I stumbled upon it myself and found it very helpful. It took me three years before I got back into working as a social worker. It kind of built up my confidence bit by bit. Initially I thought I would never work again, then maybe I’d work a lower-level job. Then I thought, “Why not get back into social work?” I’d always loved it, loved the people. It wasn’t that social work had made me ill, it was the really a bad bullying management experience, and too much on my plate. An important part of my recovery was to get back into social work. I did it for another five years.

How old are you now?

59.

How did you get into speaking out?

I feel I’ve always been a pretty outspoken person, perhaps even more so now. I realized the importance of being upfront and honest. And also the importance of using the experience to convey to other people insights and understandings. I read a very good article in the British Medical Journal by the president of the Royal College of Psychiatrists, called “Doctors as Patients,” about his own experiences of depression. I felt this was good, this guy was able to do that. And it kind of made me think, “I should write an article.” I wrote about my own experience and got it published in a counseling and psychotherapy journal. I also wrote about becoming a Christian. I found the writing very therapeutic. I was in floods of tears while writing it. Heart-wrenching, really, but also very healing. A very useful thing to do. I think others have found that as well. I also wanted to convey to other people the sense of hope as well. It’s one of the things you have to do when helping people in mental distress. Hope is one of the first casualties. I think the important thing in helping people is to hold hope for them. They can lose the capacity to hold hope.

What have been the reactions to your being open about this?

I think it’s been very positive. Fortunately, I’ve not had any negative responses. People have said they found it very moving. It’s helped them to understand. Yeah, it’s been positive.

It seems like more people are speaking openly, and there are more anti-stigma and awareness campaigns. But the suicide rate keeps going up. What needs to happen?

I can only talk about my country, Britain. Certainly over here, we’ve got a lot of problems. With mental health problems, there’s a macro thing and micro elements. Over here, we’ve got awful problems with a right-wing government slashing and burning our welfare state and trying to privatise our precious National Health Service. It seems hell-bent on privatizing whatever it can. A lot of services, as well as other health and care services, are being slashed. It’s hitting disabled people particularly hard, including people with mental health problems.

We’ve also got a terrible recession. A lot of poor and disabled people, and over a million young people, can’t get work. The people who are at work are worried about losing their jobs, being made redundant. They can’t afford mortgage payments. A lot turn to soup kitchens, food banks, as we call them here. Parents go without food so children can eat. It’s just dreadful. Obviously, mental health is affected by these social economic issues. It’s not rocket science to work out why. You slash people’s services, benefits, the economic situation is in peril, it has a very detrimental effect on well-being. This is what’s happening. A really bad scene.

How to make this a more comfortable topic?

Very difficult, isn’t it? I do think education is vitally important. I think we should be teaching children right from the early ages the importance of looking after themselves. I do a lot of work now, I teach on university courses, a lot of work on what I call looking after ourselves, strategies for protecting and promoting the mental health of people in caring professions. There’s so much pressure now in Britain, with less people to do more and more work. Demands are increasing. I think social work is bad at addressing this whole agenda of looking after ourselves. When I did my own course back then, there was nothing. I’ve been doing sessions on this seven years now.

I was astonished. I was talking with social workers in their third year of their degree course. I asked, “Prior to me, had you done anything on this at all?” “No, we haven’t looked at it.” It’s crazy, because you’re training people do one of the most stressful jobs. It seems ludicrous. It’s easy, if you’re committed and conscientious and in the stress of meeting other people’s needs, to forget about your own, and stress is very insidious. It takes over bit by bit. It becomes normal to you. Then all you need is a bit of extra pressure and stress, and you’re over the edge. If you don’t fill your tank, it runs on fumes and it stops. You know?

(I ask about the tension or misunderstanding at times between the bereaved and attempt survivors, sometimes after confusion over the term “suicide survivor.”)

I came within a breath of taking my life. Obviously as someone who was suicidal myself, I understand what depression is, what it does to people. If you haven’t had that experience, you can’t fully understand it. There are some experiences you have to have in life to fully understand. You know, some people, if they’ve lost someone, they feel a whole kaleidoscope of feelings. They also feel angry and resentful at the person leaving them with the wreckage of it all. So their level of understanding is very skewed, very limited. So that’s why you get that reaction from some people. They don’t understand, so they tend to get angry about it. I do agree with you very strongly, there’s a need for groups for people feeling suicidal to get support. I agree it’s a desperate need. A need also to provide support to their friends and relatives. I know that’s an area of the national suicide prevention strategy for England.

Your writing has mentioned Maytree and the Leeds crisis center. Do you know of others?

Those are the two main ones. We are desperately short of crisis houses, crisis centers. A real big need. We really should have one in every town and city. Because it gets away from the medical model, away from the psychiatric pharmacy approach to mental distress, and provides a wider, holistic approach. I think that’s something really important. It’s actually a lot cheaper than putting someone in a psychiatric hospital, and a lot less stigmatising. I think you’re talking about my blog on the Mind site. We have kind of  postcode lottery. Some areas, people get good care, some bad.

What else would you like to see changed?

I think the really important issue is education. The importance of understanding emotions and well-being, developing strategies to build emotional resilience. For everyone. To learn how to be mentally healthy. We get a lot of stuff about physical health. Not about mental health well-being. You go into the GP and there’s loads of stuff on the wall about physical health problems but often nothing at all about mental health. There’s a report called “No health without mental health.” Supposedly, there’s supposed to be equal parity between the two. How we feel mentally will affect us physically, and the other way around. I’m afraid when it comes to reality, it doesn’t measure up. Mental health services tend to be one of the first things that get slashed back.

(I ask for his impressions on mental health groups in the UK like Mind, which seem to put more importance on rights and social justice than the large mainstream groups in the U.S.)

I think Mind is very good. Also, there’s another organization called Rethink that deals with serious mental health issues, they do very good work as well. Also the Mental Health Foundation. We’re lucky, we’ve got some very good national mental health organizations. Another one is called the Depression Alliance. They all have a very strong campaigning arm to them. We are lucky in that respect.

You do automatically think of rights and social justice in terms of mental health in the UK?

Yes, we have what’s called a psychiatric survivor movement. As a result of experiences in the old what were called lunatic asylums, there was a feeling built up that it was so terribly wrong how people were treated. People formed associations for a more enlightened approach, and gradually through the years organizations like Mind were established. Another organization is called Papyrus, which specializes in supporting young people who are suicidal.

In everyday life, how will people react if someone talks openly about their experience?

I think it’s a mixed bag. Generally, it’s respected that users and carers are important people, that their stories should be heard. But in reality, it’s a mixed picture. In some areas, there’s some really genuine user involvement, taken seriously. There are other areas where it’s very tokenistic, not really embedded in practice. Very superficial.

Do you worry that the depression will come back, and how do you protect yourself?

I think what’s really important is, certainly, the mental health system over here isn’t always terribly good at helping people stay well. I think the important thing, obviously, is to help people stay well. I learned the hardest possible way the importance of mental health, how central it is to your whole life. I learned a valuable lesson myself, understanding myself, the trigger points, understanding the importance of being mentally healthy. Having meaning, purpose, friendship. Enjoying life, in other words. In my case, my faith as well is important. I’ve got to say I don’t worry. I feel very positive. I feel I’ve got my life very well on stream.

What a mental breakdown does is, it brings you sharp up against yourself, forces you to take stock of your entire life and to really work out what you need to do about that to change your life to a more positive sort of pattern. One of the most useful things I read was a brilliant book, called “Depressive Illness, The curse of the strong.” Very interesting, because it makes the point that often people who are very committed, very conscientious are often more prone to have stress and depression because those who aren’t so much won’t take things on so much, they will drop out of things. The others will carry on, soaking up stuff all the time. Those who aren’t don’t get so stressed or become depressed. It made a lot of sense. I’ve lent it out to a lot of other people. It was recommended to me by the Depression Alliance. It’s by a psychiatrist, but it takes a holistic approach. So I think books can be very helpful. I actually said to my psychiatrist, “You know, this is a book you might like to refer to patients. It’s not the question of getting them well, it’s helping them stay well.” Fortunately, I’ve been discharged from him for many years.

Who else are you?

I am very committed to my mental health work. It’s a very important part but, as you say, it’s not the sole part. And it would not be mentally healthy for it to be so. I’m teaching these sessions to social work students, and if I can’t realize the importance of looking after myself, I can’t teach others, yeah? So I have lots of other interests. My friends matter a great deal. I enjoy ecotherapy, the sort of walking with people in green areas, enjoying nature. To me, one of the best things in life is to go on a walk with friends. That is one of most therapeutic things you can do. Ecotherapy is at least as effective as antidepressants in mild to moderate depression. I’ve got an interest in Roman history. I’ve got an interest in astronomy. I like gardening. I’m into photography and computers. Yeah, I also like music a lot. So it’s very important, no matter how committed and conscientious about your work, very important to do things that have nothing to do with that work. So, rest and relaxation are really important. And you’ll work far more effectively as well.

Life and art, part three: Talking with Konii Burns

The exhibition was so unexpected that artist Konii Burns came to the gallery three times during its three-month run, sat alone in the space and cried. “Not so much of sadness, but of relief that this topic was being spoken about so beautifully and honestly,” she says.

This is the last of three interviews about “Inspired Lives,” the reactions to the groundbreaking Australian exhibition and the desire to take the message of suicide attempt survivors and suicidal thinking into mainstream life. (You can see the exhibition brochure here, at the final link.) The conversations with artist Mic Eales and psychologist Erminia Colucci were posted just before this one.

Konii speaks here about how her art and her young daughter help keep her open to the world. Being shy, she preferred to be interviewed vie e-mail. She was thrilled to see the encouraging response to the exhibition, including the media response, since the subject of suicide is so often quickly judged. “I found the work of all the artists involved deeply profound and at the same time uplifting, as they are all still here to tell their tales,” she says.

Who are you? Please introduce yourself.

I am Konii C. Burns, a 39-year-old sole parent, a contemporary visual artist and trained yoga teacher, although I do not teach at present. I have suffered clinical depression, anxiety and eating disorders for 25 years. I am Australian, located in a small town an hour out of Melbourne, Victoria.

How did you come to be participating in an exhibition related to surviving suicide attempts and suicidal thinking? What is your personal experience?

Organizers of the exhibition “Inspired Lives” put out a call three years ago for art to be submitted that had a relationship with suicide and suicide survival and bereavement. I have been a practicing artist for 20 years. When I saw this call, I knew I had to be involved. I submitted my 20-meter charcoal drawing entitled “Atrabilious: Depression of the Spirit” and, thankfully, it was accepted as part of the exhibition.

How did your experience become a part of your art even before this exhibition came about? And why did you want to explore it in this way?

“Atrabilious: Depression of the Spirit” was produced at a time in my life when a particular round of depression hit differently than other episodes I had experienced. I weighed less than 30 kilograms and was suffering extreme depression and anorexia, with several overdosing suicide attempts, and I had to leave a violent relationship with a
man who suffered bipolar disorder. It was a deadly relationship. One day, after a night of
abuse, I lay down and knew I was going to die. This time, I was starving myself to death. To me, it seemed more understandable from another’s perspective, especially my daughter. Easier to understand that mum got sick and had a heart attack than find me dead through violent ways.

The very next morning I took my child and ran away. I guess that’s how you would explain it. I left everything I owned, packed very quickly, as much of my girl’s belongings
as I could, as not to be caught by the man, and I landed on the doorstep of my parents’ place in rural New South Wales. My parents provided a large amount of child care and support, although they were at a loss to understand. They still loved me and provided my daughter enough cushioning from my reality that now, so many years later, my daughter barely remembers this time. Except for the pony at her 5th birthday party.

There was an endless round of doctors’ visits, weigh-ins, psychiatrists and dietician visits to my home, as I refused to go to a psych ward. I had tried six different antidepressants over the prior 14 years and none of them worked, including eight years on Prozac. I found they numbed my mind, and for an artist, that caused me more depression and is debilitating. I do not advocate antidepressants at all, so I gave this traditional, poor, Western vision of health care away. Much to the dismay and concern of my father, who is of the era that what the doctor says is right. I challenge that furiously. I found
them all too intrusive, expectant and infuriating. These services were apparently meant to heal me, yet all they did was make me more conscious of myself and my demons. I became worse within their care. So I did not attend any more appointments.

I began this drawing as one initial piece. I had no intention of it being so big. I completed one piece and felt an obligation to myself, to my environment, to keep going with the drawings. It was initiated by the dead and dying trees along a mammoth river here, the Murray River. At the time, Australia was also in severe drought. Ten years into it, and this country of mine seemed to be dying around me. The trees along the river were fallen and dry, and the farmers of this rural sector were suiciding at alarming rates. Over a 12-month period, I would take large panels of paper and lay them over the fallen trees, each chosen for their textures and hidden stories, I would wet the paper and use a very dense
charcoal and begin to make chaotic, spasmodic rubbings of the tree’s texture. I could hear the tree’s struggle for survival. I felt I was telling its story through the rubbings, which in return helped to tell my own tale of survival. Doing this work helped me survive, gave me a purpose to my being when all else, including being a parent, had failed to give me any self-worth. This work got me out of bed and, more importantly, helped to keep me breathing and alive.

Due to its size and overwhelming nature, I see it differently each time, and it evokes different emotions with each different installation. There are faces, skeletal forms, landscapes, mindscapes. The visuals are endless depending on lighting,
installation and where my mind is at in that particular moment.

What was it like working with other artists who have explored this topic openly? Is suicide usually an easy topic to discuss in the art world?

To exhibit with the Dax Centre and the other artists was a fantastic experience. I had not known there was a gallery specifically related to mental health issues, and as a suicide survivor it’s not something I generally talk about, due to the judgements and taboo and the fear I may lose my daughter. However, this environment created a kind of normality about the subject. It is deeply raw, truthful emotion that some people survive, and, unfortunately or fortunately, some succeed in their departure from the pain of their lives. I found the work of all the artists involved deeply profound and at the same time uplifting, as they are all still here to tell their tales.

All my art, not only this piece, is emotionally based on how the depression and mental illness creates havoc within my realm. Outside of this gallery, I find the word “suicide” can be a deterrent for gaining exhibition places, yet I then think if it’s too confronting for that particular gallery, there will be another that will embrace it.

I do not make any money from my art. The “Inspired Lives” exhibition was all volunteered, and with my other own exhibitions there is rarely monetary gain. Art is my nemesis and my saviour.

What surprised you about the process of putting the exhibition together and carrying it out? What did you learn about the way people respond to the subject of suicide?

I can’t say anything surprised me, as I have exhibited this work for this topic four times prior. I was also pretty removed from the exhibition once it was installed, which I do personally. I suffer anxiety and cannot speak at openings, nor do artist talks. I was pleased at the opportunity for university students to study the work, and I was very grateful to Mic Eales and the staff of the Dax Centre, who presented the artist talks for the exhibition. I have to remove myself from the work once it’s up, otherwise it can drag me through a huge emotional roller coaster. And being a depression sufferer, I am always on the
cusp of balance and decline.

What did you think of the public’s reaction to the exhibit? What comments stood out for you, and why?

I have been really happy with the exposure the topic and my work received. I was lucky enough to have peers in my local region recognize my work and identify it with mental illness awareness. I was included on the ABC website with a video of my work, and also many local newspaper interviews. I have also had some fantastic, heart-opening conversations with people who have opened up to me through social media and to me personally, where they haven’t spoken to anyone about their own struggle with suicidal thoughts and perhaps actions. For me, having one person not suicide and find
strength in my work to empower them to live is the best outcome I could hope for. Monetary gain, industry recognition, it is all secondary to the value in affecting another’s personal struggle.

What about the works by the other artists? Which ones affected you most strongly, and why?

The paper scroll that Mic Eales installed really rang out for me. The paper was made from the pulp of a futon mattress that his deceased brother owned. It was an incredibly delicate piece, huge in installation and, I imagine, a very emotional process to go through for Mic, as a bereaved brother, to make. I envisage a mountain of tears is entwined in the work. I visited the exhibition three times in the three months it was up. I sat alone in the space and cried each time. Not so much of sadness, but of relief that this topic was being spoken about so beautifully and honestly. Mic’s video work also stood out for me. I watched that three times. His advocacy work and study of this subject is very admirable. His art
is incredibly heartfelt and beautiful. I feel very privileged to be exhibiting alongside Mic’s work. Part of me doesn’t feel worthy. That’s the depression speaking.

What happens now? How do you build on the conversation that the exhibition might have started?

For me, now, this exhibition is over, and my work, “Atrabilious,” is packed away under the bed awaiting the next exhibition. There have been suggestions of touring this exhibition nationally, yet I have nothing confirmed. I will continue bringing awareness to mental health through exhibition of my other works.

Is it somehow easier to be open about your personal experience as an artist? What do you think is needed to help the average person talk more comfortably about their experience, whether publicly or with the people they know?

It is easier for me to express myself visually as opposed to verbally. Words escape me often. Emotions run so high within me that conversations about this subject usually turn to incoherent blubbering and tears. To convey emotions through a 2-D art format is the easiest way for me to communicate.

I think what is needed for people to speak of their experiences is not so much organisations or medical help, it’s having someone just to listen to you, to have someone you can cry wholeheartedly with, someone who just lets you experience the emotions and thoughts, without judgement, consequences or expectations. Whether that’s a friend, a counselor, a kind stranger on a help line. Society can be so very harsh and selfish. There also needs to be understanding on our side. The sufferers’ side, that there is no magic pill, no one can make you better, there needs to be a whole lot of self-initiated work, and that takes strength and belief in yourself. That in itself is the biggest hurdle for so many of us, for the base of our ill is our self-worth.

If you could change anything about the existing messaging about suicide prevention and mental health, how would you change it? What would you say or do instead?

Sometimes I feel the mainstream society doesn’t take it seriously enough. There is still a stigma of suicide, that “These people are weak and wanting attention.” This is just not the case. It’s sadly a case of “The illness cannot be seen, so therefore it doesn’t exist.” It does exist and is a silent killer. People need kindness and understanding, not stigma and alienation from family and friends. I have lost so many friends due to my depressive episodes. Family relationships become strained by these episodes, relationships are almost impossible to maintain and holding employment is a constant battleground. Depression and mental illness is so very isolating in so many ways, suicide
can sometimes feel as if it’s your only friend. Society is very quick to place judgement. It can make seeking help an embarrassing experience.

How are you doing? Is this something that seems to be firmly in your past, or do you think it will always be with you?

Right now, I am doing well. It has taken me six years to regain my health, including accepting the weight gain and self-image that comes with that. I am medication free. I continue to study yoga texts and practice yoga every day, as well as exercise regularly. I eat a predominately raw vegan diet and have stopped all caffeine, alcohol and stimulants. This is not to say I am cured. There are still days that I am debilitated by sadness, contemplate suicide and feel worthless. These days hit me physically. They are painful, and I can barely walk. The only way I know I will not hurt myself and survive is
to sleep. I have times where bed and darkness is the only safe place for me . I try not to fight it anymore and have faith that it will pass.

When it really is too dark, I have one friend that I know I can call at any time, who has lived with me through severe episodes, and his support, direction of thoughts and just the kindness in his voice has provided me with the strength to get up. Get up physically and mentally. I am so very grateful to him. As I have mentioned, friendships and relationships are very hard to maintain. Right now, I have very little friends, but that’s OK. I have my daughter, who is my best friend. She has seen far more than an 11-year-old should, although this has made her a very understanding, kind and considerate
person. She is amazing, and her pure being in many ways has also saved my life.

Depression is part of my makeup, a part of my art and a part of my life experience. Accepting it and not letting the demons win will always be a day-to-day fight, although I am pleased that now I feel far more in control than I ever have.

I like to ask this question last, since this experience isn’t the only one that defines you: Who else are you? What else should we know about you and the things you love?

I am a parent, of one beautiful girl. I have just begun to volunteer for an organisation called LifeLine, which is an emergency counseling hotline for people to call in time of severe distress. Producing art is what I spend the majority of my time on. It’s my life. My daughter and I are very close, and we create together in the studio. I dabble in my garden. We have a crazy dog and four guinea pigs. Like I mentioned, I study yoga, enjoy exercising and find it so very important for recovery.

I dream to be a successful artist, to get off the welfare roundabout and be able to self-support my daughter and myself through my art. I would love to be able to afford to travel internationally and explore my art options overseas. Australia is very limited in its opportunities and resources and respect of the arts. I would love to secure an artist residency in Spain and be sipping sangria in Barcelona for my 40th birthday in November.

Talking with Joel Kobren

After the 35 or so interviews for this project so far, Joel Kobren was the first person whose responses made me worry, “I wonder what people are going to think.” Joel has strong views on the language surrounding suicide, and he especially feels that the word “survivor” is not being used properly when people who have lost someone to suicide apply it to themselves. Part of that point of view comes from him being left to discover shortly after his attempt that the suicide survivors support groups listed online and elsewhere were not for people like him at all. And the mental health workers who were sending him on his way didn’t seem to realize it.

“When it comes to suicide, it is the only form of dying where those left behind consider themselves survivors of that form of death. The only one,” he says. “And when they use that language, they turn themselves into victims. And when they turn themselves into victims, that means that the person that died is a perpetrator. And I find that offensive. It’s completely wrong in its assumptions.”

Here, Joel also talks about being a generation or two older than many attempt survivors, bonding with other mental health consumers as he drives them to and from their therapy sessions and how unexpected people supported him after his attempt while others walked away.

What do you do and why? What keeps you interested in this issue?

What keeps me interested is my personal experience. To a great extent, and relative to just about every person I’ve spoken to on the subject of suicide, I’m probably the oldest guy in the conversation. My suicide was at the age of 57. And earlier this year, I turned 61, so it’s not that far back. And I’ve made for myself an enormous amount of headway in figuring out a lot of things, not the least of which is, what does it take, what do I need to figure out in order to fix some of the things that obviously went wrong? And looking at it from that perspective, my approach appears to be different. I’m not in such a hurry to move forward as much as I am to move carefully. I think it’s very easy to move forward without fixing some of the things that went wrong, only to have those things come up and bite you again. And potentially end in a suicide. One of the things I noticed at the very beginning when I woke up in the hospital two days after my suicide _ I was in the hospital for two weeks before going to a psychiatric unit for another nine days _ one of the things everybody was asking was, “Why did you do that? What were you trying to solve? Did you think it was gonna be a solution?” At the time, I looked at them and said, “What are you talking about?” Because none of that made any sense to me. I remember being in what I refer to as a depressive stupor. I was totally unaware of what was happening to me. I felt that at some point, I saw my death in front of me and I was now on a roller coaster to that point in time. And I had no control over it. I was not conscious of what was going on. I just remembered that that was the feeling that I had. And so when I reached that point, I picked up a very large revolver, loaded with very highly lethal ammunition, and put it to my chest and pulled the trigger.

Now, it’s true that on that day I was going to be evicted from the house I was in. And it’s true that the real estate manager was due to come to the house at one o’clock in the afternoon. But those facts sort of went into the hopper. And if you’ve ever seen one of those, it’s like some kind of game where you put marbles in the top and then they bounce on nails going all the way down. And that’s how information was going in. There was no clear path. It would just go into this hopper and bounce around to the bottom, and that was that. And so it all just, there was no conscious choice or decision that was applied to this information. This information was just used by my brain unconsciously under the influence of this depression that I never could have imagined how deep it really was. And when I was in the hospital, I had a lot of time to think about it. And you know, I was in a coma for two days, and when I came out of the coma, they made sure there was a psychiatrist standing right there. I remember they even brought me to consciousness to take out my intubation tube, and someone said, “No, not yet, where’s the psychiatrist, get him over here!” So I just lay there, and then they pulled the tube. they put me on a gurney, then, just like on TV, they run me to the ICU. And the psychiatrist asked, “What happened?” I said, “I missed?” And they asked, “How do you feel about that?” Which I thought was funny, because they always ask that. And I said, “Well, if you’re looking for me to be really glad I made it, you’re talking to the wrong person. You know, I can tell you that unless I find a good reason not to do it again, I’m as good as dead.”

I just knew that I was someplace that I had never been, although I had danced around it most of my life, as far back as I remember, 8 years old, always having this desire to die. And yet never, the thought of doing it myself never was in my mind. I wanted to be hit by a bus, a house to fall on me, for someone to shoot me, but the thought never occurred to do it myself. Back around 1997, 1998, I had an X-ray taken, a chest X-ray, and when it came back, the report said. “A mass is here consistent with small-cell carcinoma, yadda yadda,” They CAT scanned, did a biopsy, another biopsy, and the whole thing took place over the course of a little over a month. And all that time, I would think, “It’s finally here. OK, what am I gonna do? Well, I’m not gonna get surgery. I’m not gonna do anything. I’m just gonna do what I can do until I can’t do it anymore. And what it is is what it is.” And I had made that decision. In that context, that was a choice. I wasn’t going to do anything. I just was gonna not do anything. Finally, they got the results of the second biopsy, and it was actually a node that is normal to have after you have Valley Fever. I moved to Arizona in 1995, and in 1997 I got Valley Fever. I almost died from that. But I didn’t know what it was. If I had known, I probably would have done nothing. So I found out this was from the Valley Fever. No one had ever asked if I had had it. When I found out what it was, I became terribly depressed. I was just so bummed out. I was so disappointed. You know, there was always that aspect that I knew was there. But I never put the pieces together. And there were a lot of pieces I was never able to put together.

And after I got out of the psych unit, they just told me, “You can go online and find support groups all over the place.” So I went online. So I’m still dumbfounded after getting out of the hospital. I had my bell rung like they don’t ring bells anymore. I went online, and I’m looking, and I’m looking, and I find a lot of suicide survivor support groups, and I would read further and find out that these people are _ oh, what’s the word I’m looking for?

Bereaved.

Yes, but that’s not the word I was looking for. The word is a synonym for fakes. Fakes. I find it personally offensive that these bereaved people would call themselves survivors. To me, they are no more a suicide survivor than I am a cancer survivor because my mother died of cancer or because my sister battled cancer. It doesn’t make me a survivor. My sister’s a survivor. I’m not. I just have a sister who is. And to take this, and this instance alone, and change the rules of reference is, to me, it is offensive. It is just wrought with prejudice. And I just, I don’t find it misguided, I find it wrong. I think the word I was thinking of was “charlatan.”

Wrong with the one or two people who chose to call it that?

It’s not one or two people. It’s all I was able to find. They were grief groups. They were not for survivors of suicide. They were people who had lost someone to suicide. And when it comes to suicide, it is the only form of dying where those left behind consider themselves survivors of that form of death. The only one. You can have Alzheimer’s, heart disease, cancer, anything, and those left behind are the bereft. They are not survivors of what killed the person who is their loved one. And yet they do it with suicide, and I just find it offensive. I find that the only way they can do that is to turn themselves into victims. And when they use that language, they turn themselves into victims. And when they turn themselves into victims, that means that the person that died is a perpetrator. And I find that offensive. It’s completely wrong in its assumptions. And I just, I was just absolutely amazed that that was the state of affairs in regards to suicide. I was just totally dumbfounded. And they say, “Why?” What happened was, that person became depressed. Depression is a fatal illness. It can be a fatal illness. What happens when someone dies of depression, most often is they died from a self-inflicted injury. I can’t even say that they killed themselves because that represents a choice, a decision that was made. And there was none. And the language we use to discuss suicide, I think, is extremely important. When people would ask me what had happened, I told them I had a near-fatal depressive episode. I had something. I was sick. I was ill. I didn’t give myself cancer. I didn’t choose to have my heart stop. And I didn’t ask for a mental illness that would cause me to do this. I didn’t have a choice available to me in the state of mind that I was in at the time of the event. You know, it’s, that whole conversation became a big deal to me.

And something extremely important to me here in Arizona is, there’s a lot of pushback. I almost had the go-ahead for a (attempt survivor support) group where I work, Southwest Behavioral Health. And at first it was OK, because it was a misunderstanding. And then, “No, this is what we expected.” They were very nice about it. The people I work with are really great, the company is excellent. They apologized for the misunderstanding. They didn’t act as though I did anything wrong, but it wasn’t something they wanted to get involved in because of the perceived liability that they would be exposed to. I had the same thing with the department of behavioral hearth services in Arizona. They had a program, the Arizona Dialogues. I went to a very involved three-day training in order to facilitate these dialogues that were between disparate groups of people to get conversations going. Some of these were as few as 12 people, some as many as 200 to 300 people. Most of those people were observers in those situations. A lot of people, knowing they would not be able to speak, except perhaps at the end, they still wanted to come and hear what was gonna be discussed, what people had to say. So it was a very interesting program. In fact, they’re starting it up again. And I was contacted to participate again. But with them, I suggested a dialogue on suicide, and they, at first, there was a lot of interest. And then when it went up the flagpole, it was too much liability: “Someone will get out of control and kill themself.” It’s like, how much about mental health do you know? There’s a lot of ignorance on the subject. And I think to fill the void, what a lot of people do is, I don’t mean to sound harsh, but they just make stuff up. I don’t want to say that as being mean, but having these holes of information that to most people don’t make sense, they fill those holes with ideas that they can wrap their heads around, even though that information may be erroneous. And they don’t know. And it’s not that they’re trying to create information that doesn’t exist, you know, they’re not trying to do it in a negative way, but the brain has to have a certain amount of order, and they’re just trying to bring that amount of order to a subject that they don’t really understand. And I think it’s for us, and by us I mean people that have come very close to the subject matter, to educate them. One of the things, unfortunately, that makes it difficult is that when so many people ask, “What were you thinking? What did you expect to accomplish? Why did you do that?” a lot of people feel obligated eventually … At first they say, “I don’t know.” Eventually, they feel obligated to answer those questions, throw things out that people want to hear, at least people will accept. It continues these misconceptions. Now, for the people answering the question, it’s very difficult.

Like I said earlier, most of these people are considerably younger than myself. I have a different way of looking at things, partly because of my age, partly because of my illness, that I never knew I had, by the way. I started showing symptoms of bipolar disorder when I turned 17. And it wasn’t until I was in therapy after my suicide and four months after I started where they said, “We want to try to rule out bipolar disorder.” So I said, “You think it’s bipolar disorder?” “Well, we want to try to rule it out.” I just sat there for a minute, and my brain did a fast rewind through my entire life to that summer I turned 17. It was like, well, of course! I didn’t know. I didn’t know why I went through so many jobs, so many girlfriends, so many relationships, so many marriages. All I knew is, I couldn’t figure out a way to hold on to any of it. I ended up in the hospital more than a year later, and when I went back in, they took me off everything I was on. I was on most of the new medications. And they went back to the old standby and put me on lithium. And once they started to see it was starting to accumulate in my blood, even though I was not up to therapeutic levels, they said, “OK.” They were in touch with my prescriber. They sent me home. Over the next number of months, they adjusted the dose to therapeutic levels. We added Wellbutrin, because I was still seeing more depression than I was comfortable with. And I was very antsy, I couldn’t figure out why. I didn’t like it. We were talking, and I told him what I used to do when I was in school around 1971, and I was working on a very big project. And I would start work at about 7, 8 at night, and I would work through the night until about 3,4 in the morning. And then I would take a nap and then I would get up, go to work, or school, depending on the schedule. Then I would do school and work, then come home, get a bite to eat, start all over again. When I started working, now here I was about 20 years old, and I was going to school in Boston, going to the Berklee College of Music. When I got my project ready, I had a card table and a folding chair, and I would take a black beauty, which is an amphetamine, and I would have about four joints rolled on the table to last me throughout the night. And then when it was time for me to go sleep for a few hours, I would take two black beauties and lay down and sleep three or four hours. And my prescriber asked, “You would take two and go to sleep?” I said, “Yup.” “I think we know what to do.” And she gave me a prescription for Ritalin. I take one in the morning, and one in the afternoon, and within 15 or 20 minutes I feel calm, relaxed, just the whole edge off. Which is not the normal response to Ritalin. So there were a number of diagnoses in my chart that were not official, so bipolar is, that’s my diagnosis. But it’s interesting, there’s the bipolar and then ADHD, more genetic than environmental. And then there’s the personality disorder and the PTSD, that’s more environmental. So it’s been a lot of discovery over the last few years as to what exactly has been holding me back. Because I never knew, and I never knew how to find out. So it has been an extremely interesting trip.

There were things, one thing I had early on in my therapy, I had no conflict resolution skills. And my therapist said, “Do you really think it’s a skill?” Well, I hope so, because I don’t have it. So it was an interesting situation. I had a conflict with a co-worker, and it became extremely volatile. Over the next few days, it didn’t get better, it got worse. Although no one said anything to me. I was just getting more worked up, didn’t know what to do. Over the course of a year it took me to figure out why I was reacting that way, why I had the lack of skills, what that lack of skill was, why did I respond to conflict in the way that i did. I could not just go forward  and say, “I’m going to do it differently.” The only way was to figure out why was I doing it that way in the first place. And I did. At one point, I thought I had figured it out, but not all had changed. It was maybe another six months before the second half of the puzzle, my brain was able to sort it out. I had never gone through an experience like that. It just never, for me, it was an achievement that to me was life-changing. And it was something that I needed so badly. And it’s part of the process of what we call recovery. For everyone, it’s different. We need to enter the conversation with respect up front. I’ve had the opportunity to do a lot of things in behavioral health in the last few years. Some things I was not happy with, some worked well, some things didn’t. I was involved in the DBSA, with another gentleman who was very active with the DBSA in California and is now in Arizona. We organized the state chapter. And when we started, there were issues where we felt, there was another organization called Mental Health America, and I’m sure they are very nice people. But I personally take umbrage. This is not competition. We’re not making money doing this. Yet what they’re doing, they put out things under DBSA and then all the contact information goes to Mental Health America. Why would I spend all my time trying to develop the organization in the state if somebody else is going to come in and steal my reference information and people’s ability to contact me? The DBSA says, “That’s not our job. Our job is to funnel down information and be a resource for chapters.” So I said, “If my job isn’t to grow the organization within the state, you’re wasting my time.” I expected to have a bigger impact. Certain things with the state didn’t work out, certain things did work out. I’m very lucky, I work where I get my services. My boss is my therapist. She’s not my direct report, she runs the program. But I still get to speak with her when I need to. So it’s great to be able to walk into her office and say, “So, you have a minute? I need to talk about something personal.” And we’ve kept it pretty straight for about two and a half years. And it’s nice to be able to walk into my prescriber and say, “I need these prescriptions.” That’s nice perk.

I think suicide, from what I’m hearing on the national conversation, is that it’s extremely misunderstood. We know that over 90 percent of all suicides are people who are in the throes of either undiagnosed and/or untreated depression. It could be bipolar, schizophrenia, very often substance abuse issues, but depression seems to be the one thread that runs through all of them. And yet we still sit here and ask somebody, “What were you thinking?” Who’s got the problem? I’m sorry, but we know. I think the biggest thing is to do away with the word “suicide.” I think the word is misleading. Because when people speak of suicide, they say “He committed suicide” or “He attempted suicide.” I attempted to bake a cake, and it failed, but suicide isn’t something where I woke up one morning and said, “Hey, I’ve got a great idea.” You know that. And when I talk to others who’ve been through the experience, they know it too. But everyone else, they come up with something that effectively will get everyone off their back. But they’re younger. Everyone asking them these questions are parent figures, older, teachers. There are friends, but friends have an entirely different take on it. But we know it’s depression. We know that. Nobody says it isn’t. If we know it’s depression, why don’t we call it what it really is? A fatal depressive episode. And if we start to talk about it in terms of not something that someone does, but in terms of something that happens to them, then I think the conversation will finally start. And the understanding will start. It gets rid of the prejudice that people have. What’s the word I’m looking for?

Stigma?

Stigma, yes. Thank you. You know, because stigma really is prejudice. And the way to get rid of it is to create the understanding. And yet we can’t get rid of the stigma because we ourselves sometimes have such a difficult time understanding what is happening to us. And the behavioral health community isn’t really a lot of help. And here they sent me to the internet for support groups? They should have given me a list. And where did they send me? Grief groups. If they don’t know what’s going on out there, how are we supposed to know? I think the best place to get information is amongst ourselves.

How do we find each other?

You found me, didn’t you? It took you four years, and I have been waiting for you. I think this is definitely one way that it happens. And I think one of the reasons that it did was that article. Interestingly enough, the article was actually on DBSA. And the main person in the article was supposed to be Henry Willey, the guy I was working with in DBSA. But the writer told Henry she wanted to talk to somebody who was willing to talk without an alias. She didn’t want any more of this clandestine stuff. I really appreciated it. And a lot of people found me from that article. The last of which was one of my cousins. A heck of a way to find out what someone’s up to. So this is another step. If we work together, and you have the time and know-how … You’re obviously hip on all the internet stuff, and I know how to get on, I know how to find my e-mail. You know, you can do that. And we can talk. I don’t care how often you want to talk. I know I’m pretty much going off all night here. But I just wanted you to get a good idea of where I’m at. Because I think it’s different than a lot of people’s. And I say that based on the people that I know that also have had near-fatal depressive episodes. I don’t think there’s any other way to say it that’s more accurate for the experience we’ve been through. I get very tired very quickly, but people tried to make me feel it was my fault. I was not gonna do that for very long, and I didn’t. And my feeling very quickly became, they can either educate themselves, find information, or they just go live their life in ignorance and bliss while the rest of us work on a real problem. Because this, it so needs people that care to speak out. I was doing a lot more before I started working.

I went back to work over two and a half years ago now. Even though I’m working part time, I put in whatever’s needed to get it done. There are a lot of clients that rely on the work that I get done. It’s great. And for the first time … In all my other jobs, it was about “How important can I be to make myself more needed or make more money?” And for the first time, it’s about the work that I do that’s important. It has never been, I have never walked away from a day at work and thought, “Boy, wow, did I do a great job today!” It’s like, “I’m not the issue here. The work that I do is the issue. The people that I do work for, in terms of the clients, they’re the issue.” And to me, to have that perspective, to finally have that clarity, it’s huge. Huge to me. And it just makes me want to work. Not just suicide prevention, and the classes I’ve taken, I’ve done a number of multi-day suicide prevention trainings. And even in my office, if there’s a therapist that’s on the phone with a client, and the therapist tells the director they have somebody on the phone who’s suicidal or in crisis, or the front desk gets someone in crisis and possibly suicidal, I have become the go-to guy. And as that continued to happen and that’s developed in the office, it’s, to me, it’s very odd that rather than finding something that I can be proud of, I find it’s something that’s like, “Oh good, because I don’t trust anybody see to talk to these clients.” It’s true! And my therapist, who’s also the director of the program, she says, “OK, you did this, you did that, now can you feel you did something good? Be proud of yourself?” And where in the beginning that was a goal, now it’s like, “I don’t have time for that. I’m more concerned about the clients. And I want to be the one, you call me at home, I’m only 15 minutes from the office. I’ll come in. Make me the crisis guy.” But not because I get a raise or I get prestige. It means nothing. The only thing that means to me is that I feel my clients are safer. And I tell my therapist that I say “my clients,” not like I feel they’re mine, and she said, “Good, because you can get too emotionally involved.” Eventually, and especially for someone like me who puts themself in the firing line, eventually I’m going to lose someone. That’s just the nature of the beast. I cannot save everyone, and I know that. I’m not happy about that, but I know that. So there’s a huge risk that I take. She’s aware, I’m aware, we’re all aware. We do what we gotta do. But I didn’t even think of it until she brought it to my attention. It’s not about me. And for so long it had to be about me, because I was holding on by a thread. Like that little kitten hanging out of the tree by one little claw, you know? And that’s what I was doing for 40 years. And it’s a long time to be hanging there. And now that I’m not, I find I’m not trying to accomplish what I thought I was trying to accomplish. No, I can accomplish more than that. It’s a very, very interesting experience for me. It really is.

How do you protect yourself? And are you still in the process of saving yourself? Does that make sense?

Yes, absolutely right. And very observant. The process that I’ve gone through and the changes I’ve gone through, I never could have imagined. Those are helping me protect myself. I’m very observant, for instance, when I’m at work and working with clients, driving them to and from their appointments, they are in the van for more than twice as long as they are with their therapist. It would be like 45 minutes from their home into the office, a 50-minute hour, then I have them for 45 minutes going home. Very few people don’t say anything. There are some that won’t talk, but they’re relatively few, and what’s amazed me is that I have been able to connect with 17, 18, 19-year-old girls. I’m a 61-year-old guy. I don’t see that connection, but yet it’s there. And you know, I will sometimes ask questions that I decided to ask to see just how far the connection is. And they’re open and honest and talking abut their lives and what they want to do, where they want to go, what’s happening with their parents, stuff like that. I can give them a perspective they respect. It’s interesting to me how that seems to work. That protects me. I always keep in my head that they are who they are, what they are. I can’t change anything, but I can influence things. That influence, it’s given me that distance. Even though somebody, it’s weird, sometimes these girls, they’ll come up, in a group or something, they’ll come up and give me a big hug, that’s fine. You know.

But my brain, I don’t know why, my brain puts it into perspective quickly. Like, this is probably gonna sound very morbid, but I always think if I never saw this kid again, I would really miss them. And that would be OK. Now, if I didn’t see them for a hundred million different reasons, it doesn’t have to be anything bad. It’s just that I would miss them, and that would be OK. So I remove from the equation, my happiness doesn’t rely on this relationship. And so it’s always about them not being there. And that goes with anyone that I know. Some of the people are much more troubled than others. It keeps me, I don’t think about myself that much anymore. And I think part of it is, I don’t need to. I think now I can finally just do the things that I want to do, without being in fear of it coming to an end. Which is how I lived my life. Whenever things were going well, it was like, “OK, when is this gonna go to hell?” Because it always did. I never had a job more than two years in my life. Now it’s finally going on three years. It’s still getting past a big point. You’re right, I do have to be aware all the time of protecting myself. But it’s weird, I would not feel comfortable trusting anyone else to be where I am, do what I do. I’m going to have to at some point. When my position changes and they have to hire more drivers, and I’ll be overseeing and doing more case management. I know that’s going to be coming down the pike. I know I’ll have to give it up. It’s just gonna have to be hard.

This not trusting others to handle things, do you think it’s in any way like the idea of not trusting people to run suicide attempt survivor support groups? Or am I misunderstanding what you were saying?

It’s not a misunderstanding at all. There are certain things, I think more accurate is, I don’t feel comfortable. If there was a client on the phone, and that client was suicidal, I could look at everyone in the office, including the Ph.Ds that we have, and I can tell you that there’s not one of them that I would feel comfortable with talking to that client. And I can equally tell you that not one of them would be comfortable talking with that client.

But that’s their job.

That’s correct.

And it’s possible they might have had this experience themselves but don’t dare mention it.

That’s correct. But based on their, just certain conversations, I doubt … In general, you’re right. You know, there are a lot of therapists, people in behavioral health who’ve had experience with self-inflicted injuries that would never, ever tell anyone because of the fear of repercussions. But sometimes, and I think … If you mention something, and somebody doesn’t want anybody to know, and you’re being really open about your experience, there are certain signals they can’t almost help but give off. Where you would pick up and probably not say anything, but you’d walk away thinking, “That person knows more than they’re telling.” You also know how important is it to respect their privacy. They know how to seek you out. If they don’t, it’s their prerogative. I was going to tell you about Magellan. The reason you hear so much about Magellan, they are for Maricopa County, which is Phoenix and the surrounding areas.

Is what they’re doing innovative? Is that why I hear about them?

There’s one guy there, David …

Covington.

Covington. This is essentially his pet project. I was part of the initial group that he put together. And one of the things that got me there was the promise of a support group for people that had a near-fatal depressive episode. And when I got there, there were two or three meetings prior. Those were interesting. We were all going in the right direction. Then we were going to have this meeting for people who had lived through it. And it wasn’t that at all. It was a group of people who had survived, and now David wants us to research and find the best practices in the country for suicide prevention. And I said, “Well, is there any place in the country that has shown a marked decrease in suicide over the last three to five years?” And somebody said, “That’s not what we’re looking for.” I said, “But David said he’s looking for best practices. Wouldn’t the best practice result in a decrease in suicides over the past three to five years?” Apparently, I have a very strange way of looking at things, because I was told that’s not what they were looking for. I couldn’t understand how to go about it. He said he didn’t just want a Google search. If it’s not reduced incidents, what’s your criteria? You know? And I said, “What if we looked at results, didn’t find any results, and we created a best practice that actually works? Would that not be a project?” No. So I wrote six or eight pages, a paper called “The Language of Suicide.” And David read it, we talked abut it, he got my ideas: “You’re right! That’s it!” I’m like, “OK, I don’t really care about being right, how can I contribute?” “I’ll let you know.” So I’m still waiting. That was about three years ago. I get it. I understand. Which is a terrible thing, because it means I can’t be mad at him. I’d rather be mad at him. He can’t afford to put himself in a position where he doesn’t know everything, or at least most of everything. He needs to be, and maybe it’s because of his position, but he needs to know all the players and all the plays, and he needs to be able to wrap his mind around everything. And although he might have been able to glimpse a lot of the things I was talking about, once he left, he really had to think about it and really truly understand it. It became more difficult to understand it relative to what he already knows. You cannot call it suicide and a fatal depressive episode at the same time. They mean two completely different things. And that’s the most important change in perception that we can make to understand the experience without actually having to go through the experience.

How do we do that?

People like you. Because if you … Let’s say you started a blog. Or added to your blog. I really don’t know how they work, so I couldn’t really tell you. Let’s say you did something and called it “The Language of Suicide.” And you were able to get this change in writing. And we got it on the internet, and there’s now some place that people would land that would disseminate this concept. One of these people could be someone who could add to the effort. But that’s the only way that I know, because I’ve talked to people who are, shall we say, influential and powerful, both in private industry and in the state, the office of individual and family affairs, and they like it, and then they don’t do anything about it. Either it’s too much work, or it might be too difficult, meaning it’s too much work. And I think that the main reason for that is, they don’t really have a stake in it.

Changing the language, that’s what will swing open the door?

I certainly think it will crack open the door and start a conversation. I was in sales for a number of years, and one of the things that was very successful was, when I would put something out there, I would do it so they’re not necessarily going to get it, but I would get them to ask the question. Two things: Even if they were not interested before, they are now. Or at least curious. The other thing is that if I had told them the information before, they would have shut off because I was telling them about what I wanted them to know. And if it was about me, they’re not interested. But if they ask, now what I’m saying is the answer to their question. Now they’re listening. They asked for the info, they wanted to hear, now they’re listening, because they don’t want to look like idiots. The method of getting people to accept new information is to get them to ask for it. And so if they see a phrase, like, say, “fatal depressive episode,” and they say, “Well, what’s that?” that’s a home run. Because they’ve just asked you to explain everything you want them to know. It’s interesting because some people have seen the phrase and they’ll say, “Oh wow, how interesting.” And again, you may have to say, “Isn’t that phrase so much more accurate than saying suicide?” Either they say “Yes” or they say “Huh?” So either you have an ally or someone you can make an ally. But starting a conversation is really important.

After your attempt, you seemed to know right away who would end up standing by you and who would not. How did you sense that so quickly?

Well, I certainly never knew who, just that there would be surprises, and I didn’t want to be blindsided. My wife, now ex-wife, was the first to go. I think it helped that she was so blunt about it. She shut off my cell phone within the first three days so when I woke from my coma, I couldn’t make any calls, including to her. She called about a week later on the hospital phone. The conversation went like this: “Hello?” “Hi. I just want you to know that I’m never getting over this and we’re done.” “Don’t you at least want to have a conversation about what happened?” “No. Goodbye.” Click. My friend Richard, who I met in 2001 as a colleague at work, and whom I wasn’t really very close to at the time, was there for me in as much as he could be. After the gunshot, after waiting for an hour and a half for the “lights to go out,” I called Richard, who happened to have visited the night before with his wife. They felt something might be wrong and did everything they could to get me to give up my last gun, having sold all the others, or stay at their house to swim, hot tub or just hang out. Obviously, I declined. The call was simple, in its effort to buffer the shock: “Richard, I think I just shot myself.” It took him about 30 minutes to get to my house on his motorcycle and another 15 for the ambulance. They ended up airlifting me to the nearest trauma center. After getting out of the psych unit, Richard picked me up, about a 50-mile trip one way. He welcomed me into his home for a week, thinking that’s all I would need to get a job and find a place to live. He just didn’t know. Now, as I assist him with his substance abuse and parenting problems, I still have to reassure him that he did what he was able to do at time. He still brings up that he should have done more. He has no idea how much he did. Ann, my ex-wife’s son’s ex-wife _ my ex-step-daughter-in-law _ had lost her grandmother, her mother and her 32-year-old brother within the last 18 months. Upon hearing I was in the hospital, and why, they would not take anyone’s word for it; they wanted to see me for themselves. They and Richard were the only visitors I had in the two weeks spent in the ICU. After the week at Richard’s, I went to stay with Ann, her new husband and my three grandchildren. Ann’s ex-husband went the route of telling her I am not to be anywhere around the kids, that I was dangerous and she should not let me into the house. He added a letter to me that can only be described as the quintessential “poison pen” letter of about six pages, if I remember correctly. Obviously, I no longer have it. My sisters didn’t call for quite a while, weeks or a month or so. My father never did. However, when he went to visit my younger sister in Las Vegas, she called me to see if they could drive down for a couple of days. They spent two nights, over which time hardly much was said. I don’t think my father said two words in all that time. No support there. A cousin of mine runs a program on his computer that searches for the name “Kobren” on the internet. He does this for business reasons, as he is often quoted on business matters. He found the same article you did and called another cousin that I’m closer to. He found me through Facebook, which another colleague of mine suggested I set up, and was totally and completely supportive, both financially and emotionally. We hadn’t spoken in almost 20 years. No one else really matters. If that changes, I will either welcome it or mourn the loss, but I will still continue to move forward.

You mentioned more than once that you’re probably older than many people who’ve had this experience. Have you noticed that there seems to be more emphasis on suicide prevention for the young, and how do you feel about that? Does that necessarily mean that the issue of suicide for middle-aged and older people is neglected somehow?

Statistically, men 65 and older represent the greatest risk for suicide. That said, I personally don’t believe that any current campaign directed at any demographic will significantly reduce the incidence of suicide due to their approach. From what I’ve seen, they concentrate on the reasons someone would “want” to take their life and the reasons they shouldn’t take their life. No one focuses on the signs of the onset of the depression that can cause the self-infliction of a fatal injury. I find that disturbing.

Have you ever lost anyone close to you to suicide?

Yes. A friend who I was pretty close to from 1996 until her death in 2002. I had been becoming more distant since I had met the woman who I was going to marry. She died in February, but I didn’t find out until April or May. None of our mutual friends thought to call me. Fact is, I blamed myself too.

I’m assuming that when you shot yourself, you thought it would kill you. I tend to worry a lot about people seriously messing themselves up because they go into an attempt thinking, “Well, maybe this will work.” If suicide prevention included the message that it’s very hard to kill yourself and no method is foolproof, do you think that would be a powerful deterrent?

I don’t think so. The method I used was pretty “foolproof,” and yet it didn’t work. By the time I started therapy, after my release from the hospital, I had come up with an even more foolproof method. The idea of surviving would never have deterred me since I would be sure that “That only happens to other people.”

Here I go painting you with a broad brush, but there’s the idea that older men are more hesitant to ask for help when it comes to mental health or emotional issues. If you’d agree, what do you think would be the best approach to ease that?

It seems to me that they’re not so much reluctant to ask for help as much as they feel that their reasons may be different. In some cases, loneliness and isolation will lead to the depression that puts them at risk. For others, pain and deteriorating health may be prompting an “end of life” decision. I know many people disregard the issue, claiming it’s just another death by self-inflicted injury, while others say it is a choice.

I want to go back to the part about suicide survivor support groups, because you were quite passionate about it. Are you actually angry at them, the people who lost someone?

It’s not so much I get angry at them in an overtly angry way. I went to a meeting, a suicide prevention meeting, and at the end of the meeting there were two women that attended that were part of a grief group. And as much as I wanted to, at the time, it was very early on, maybe six months after my event, and I find it sometimes difficult to be angry at people for the way they feel about certain things. I tend to take an attitude of, if they choose to be ignorant, that’s their problem. Yes, they’re making it more difficult for what I want to do, which is to reduce the prejudice around suicide, by telling everybody it’s the worst thing in the world and then saying, “Look what they did to me.” Excuse me, they didn’t do anything to you. They’re the ones in the ground. It happened to them. A lot of what it seemed like was they felt very guilty, thought there was something they should have been able to do. They think they should have been able to stop it. And I can understand that, given their misconception of what it is really all about. But if they were better informed as to what exactly was happening or did happen, they might be able to get past that and stop looking at themselves as survivors. I don’t think they need to stop looking at themselves at survivors first. I think they need a reason not to see themselves as survivors, and the reason would be, it wasn’t something their loved one did, it was something that happened to them. And if happened to them, how could they be responsible?

I think it comes from the language in funeral notices: “So and so is survived by …”

I thought the same thing. But why are they the only group that latches on to that? I think it’s because, and this is what bothers me so much, there’s only one way that could have happened. By calling themselves survivors, if you look at any other group, they had something terrible happen to them that they lived through. Unfortunately, these people haven’t decided to live through it yet. They’re keeping themselves as survivors. They’re making themselves victims. It stands to reason that if you’re the victim, who’re the perpetrator? It upsets me, but I could certainly have a rational conversation with someone. What would really get me crazy is when, after that conversation, they tell me I’m nuts. Maybe so, but I’m taking medication. What are you doing?

(The phone accidentally cuts off. I call him back, and he apologizes.)

I was thinking, nice way to have the last word! But I wanted to ask the question I like to ask at the end: Who else are you?

A really great question. And thinking about it, originally my brain was going to a, “What else do I do?” It’s not what else do I do. She asked, “What else am I?” I looked at that one thing that I’ve always hung on to, and that especially when I was starting out to get better, what I held on to for dear life. I am my integrity. I am everything that I believe is right and wrong. I am my honesty, my willingness to help with both feet, not just “OK, here’s this and goodbye.” I am the person that, given being affected by my illnesses all those years, I am the person that I have created, the person that I always wanted to be, at least as close to that as I can possibly get. But that has always been a guiding principle of my life. I read somewhere a long time ago, “Live your life as though you were writing your obituary.” I guess I took that to heart. In doing that, I’m not necessarily being 100 percent successful at it the whole time, but being the person that at least thinks about that and works toward that, that to me is a person worth being. And that’s always been important to me. It’s funny, my therapist is always like, “Well, aren’t you proud of that yet?” I’m willing to wait so that on my tombstone they can write, “I’m proud of what I did. I’m proud of how I did it.” That’ll work for me. Though honestly, I can’t say I’ve always been that way. I have, but I’ve also been affected by other things. The only way I knew how to keep a job or do a job or have a job or just, you know, something. But it’s different now. In a very strange sense _ and I never ever look at it this way, I really don’t, but with you, I will make this one exception _ in a sense, my event was a really great thing for me. Because at that point, there was no way of going on with that I had, there really wasn’t. I had absolutely no way of figuring anything out. I couldn’t do it anymore. It was done. But the only thing to move forward was to have received the help that I got after the event. And it saved my life. Actually … The help, yeah. it not only saved my life, it actually gave me my life. It didn’t give me my life back, it just gave me my life. So I mean, maybe the reason I’m so passionate is because of that fact. I feel that I owe, you know, I owe it to maybe try to help some people, some person, get their life without having to go through that.

Talking with Alicia Raimundo

So let’s talk about the idea of attempt survivors as superheros. Alicia Raimundo stood up at the end of this month’s national conference of the Canadian Association for Suicide Prevention and told a little of her story. We spoke this week, and she’s all for openness on the topic. And some playfulness as well. “Part of me wants to make people feel uncomfortable around me because I’m challenging their beliefs,” she says. “I’m not the media representation of the mentally ill.”

Here she talks about speaking up for a younger generation of attempt survivors, what effect it has on her dating life and how dealing with suicidal thinking shouldn’t be seen as all that different and scary. “If you take a normal person and put them in a suicidal situation, their coping mechanisms in that extreme emotional situation, they would fail too,” she says. “Just like we celebrate cancer survivors for beating cancer, we should celebrate people for beating schizophrenia or bipolar.”

Where would you start your story?

I think I would start by explaining that one of the first things you learn to do is cry, to get attention, to take the pain away, to help you get through something. And as you get older, you put Band-Aids on cuts, call the doctor. But no one tells you how to deal with pain you can’t see. No one tells you how to even start that conversation. To the point that I didn’t even realize I was sick until I was 12, 13. I thought everyone walked around extremely nervous and miserable. I struggled to find the right things to say in grades 7 and 8, and I realized this was a problem not common and unique to me. My classmates were a lot better getting people to talk and like them. That’s when it hit its hard point. And so I tried reaching out to a couple of people but didn’t know how to articulate it. One final reachout was to a teacher helping teach my grade 8 class. At this time, I was kind of known as a problem kid, the one who would not talk to anybody. That sometimes can come off as egotistical. I thought everybody was rejecting me, so I preemptively rejected others. She wasn’t too happy about me asking for help. When I went to meet her, I overheard her say, “I have to go meet this crazy girl,” and I kind of shut down: “I’m not gonna get better.” Everybody misunderstood: “She’s just acting out.” When she amplified that, I kind of just, you know, decided, “This is it. I’m done with this, being miserable every day, waiting for my mom’s car to come and to cry in the car. I’m done.” I made a plan to take my own life. It didn’t succeed, thankfully. At this point, I felt this struggling, like waiting for the next chance for it to come. It’s like just getting enough air to breathe and most days not getting that much.

One time life changed was when I was trying to get treatment on my own. I came across this woman in a treatment center. I was young, a teenager, and I looked like I didn’t care about anything. The woman says, “From one crazy person to another, you’ll need this,” and she gave me a necklace with the word “hope” on it. The ironic part of the story is, the woman was also a client, suffering from a manic stage, and her daughter came up to me seconds later: “I’m sorry, can I have that back?” To me, it was the idea that we can have small things to hope for. For me, it was watching my sister graduate from high school, which happened two years ago. The hope to see things. After that initial hope, my living was not so hard anymore. There are days where I don’t have a good day with it, but I’m a lot stronger. I don’t wish mental illness on anyone, but it’s a blessing in disguise because I had to know myself a lot better than others. I had to know what worked and what didn’t. For me, not knowing is lethal. And so at a certain point, I started getting better and better and wanted to give back.

I got frustrated sharing my story like Spider-Man, anonymously, on blogs here and there, hiding. It was really stupid. I wanted to be like Ironman, in front of a crowd. “Fuck this.” I wanted to do this, go there, start the conversations. I’m super. And from that point on, I share that story with people. You can be that person, sharing in the open. You get this overwhelming support. There’s a stupid comment here and there, but it’s mostly support. I created this peer group who supports me through bad days. I work for a large corporation in Canada, and I was on a large TV morning show here. I took the morning off from work. When I came back, they were really interested. I said this had nothing to do with work, but they wanted to see. One person just said to the other, “If you knew she was suicidal, why did you hire her?” You hear the horror stories, you know this happens. You hear this on trains, buses, people saying, “I can’t hire this person, they have gaps in their resume.” They’re not realizing people can get better. I was hearing this negative feedback nine years after I tried to take my own life, so it was really an unjust comment. Sometimes sick people should be stepping away from work to invest in themselves. If they need to take time off to get better, do it. But me, I was treated with a ridiculous amount of bias.
I was in a meeting with the CEO and a bunch of others. I went up to him after the meeting and said “You’re really concerned about brain injury. There’s a lot of employees concerned about mental health issues.” I told him my story, and he said, “My wife has bipolar. I would not stand for this in a million years.” He put the two gentlemen in touch with HR. I urged not to fire them because they’d get more angry and take it out on others. They started putting this into HR training. One guy came to a talk of mine a few weeks ago and apologized.

It has a strong impact. I share my story and have people telling the life stories they never shared before. Like my train story. I was on suburban rail in Ontario. I’m sitting, talking to a friend about suicide prevention. A gentleman followed me off the train and I thought, “This is kind of creepy.” Then he’s talking to me and seems normal. He says, “I’ve never heard anyone talk so openly about suicide prevention.” I said, “I’m passionate about it.” He’s telling me he felt suicidal for a really long time: “I’m glad people talk openly.” I asked if he had resources. He said, “Yeah, a lot of really great people.” I remember standing outside the station and my dad’s car comes up. “It was nice talking to you.” He says, “I want to thank you.” Why? He says, “If not for you, I was going to jump in front of the train.”

So the power of these conversations, it’s so uncomfortable and scary putting yourself out there, but the good effect is amazing. You just feel this connection with people. People come up to you in tears: “I was planning on ending my life next week, but I’m going to get help.” Sometimes you have to remember the most ignorant voice in the room is sometimes the loudest, the first to say, “That doesn’t happen” or “Your statistic is wrong!” And everyone else is waiting for someone else to say, “Me too.” My dream is showing them if you’re living with mental illness, you’re more than normal. You’re so strong. You have to know that helping yourself can be a full-time job. Help people to not beat up themselves if they’re not so productive at work. The strength of wanting to help people is amazing. [At Canada’s national conference for suicide prevention] I recounted the story of the woman [doing the mental health awareness walk] on the Brooklyn Bridge. She started feeling sick and collapsed in the medical tent. I went in and her husband said, “She has to finish for our son.” Just the power of making any choice, any difference.

I think one of most important messages is, it’s just as simple as asking what you can do for that person. Or giving a list of things you’re comfortable doing. I think there’s so much that needs to happen. It’s great to see these movements, these discussions around suicide moving from every time something horrible happens to a more constant dialogue. Just sharing stories of hope and change, saying people can get better. Because people always look at me. I’m a quirky individual, and they associate that with my mental illness. I’m like, “No, the reason I have a personality is I found a way to live with my mental illness.” My quirkiness is kind of just like … People, when someone knows you’re ill, they look for aspects of your personality they don’t like and think you’re still ill. It’s kind of like doing self-confirming bias, to make it look like I’m always sick. I do have remnants, but one reason I can have a personality is I feel a lot better now. I think it’s just one of those things that strikes me as kind of funny.

At the conference, you also told a story about following a guy around because he was scared of you …

The first time I was ever asked to speak, I was at the University of Waterloo. The guy basically looked at me, and hilariously enough, it was at our campus peer educator group. He was in charge of making information about suicide. He asked in a condescending voice, “Why are you talking about suicide? I said I was suicidal. It was not the most mature thing to do. I just was like, “Yeah, I’m going to prove I’m not contagious and follow you around.” His reaction was so unreal. I just wanted to show them I could sit next to them, have conversations, be a productive member of their team. I’m not going to, you know, snap and decide that I’m going to attack them all. I don’t really understand what goes through their mind. I was just trying to prove the point, it’s not something to be scared of. Most people with mental illness are not going to hurt you. They’ll probably hurt themselves. A lot of times when people do negative things, it’s a time for a conversation: “Why do you think that’s OK?”

And I think it’s been an interesting journey. Talking to people, sometimes they don’t realize what they’re saying is really wrong. They’ve never been told that before. They’ve not been told it’s offensive. And I do that. At the same time, I will stay in situations, and part of me wants to make people feel uncomfortable around me because I’m challenging their beliefs. I’m not the media representation of the mentally ill. The media don’t do the best job of showing it. And people don’t like feeling wrong. This is just something they believed. And one thing I’ve done for a couple of friends I lost by suicide is go to their Facebook page, and when people ask, “How did this person die?” I go in a private message and tell them they died by suicide. They suffered from mental health issues and were very sick. And there’s no type of person that does that. Like you can lose a person to cancer, you can lose them to suicide.

I think the more we can have these awkward conversations with people, make people laugh … When someone reacts weirdly to me now, I say, “Don’t worry, I’m not throwing cats at you” just to lighten the mood. Sometimes suicide and mental health can be really heavy, and making people laugh, showing we can laugh and are pretty unique people ourselves, sort of starts to change the discrimination. It can help change stigma. I’ve seen minds be changed. People come around to it. Sometimes people are not exactly where I want them to be, but it’s a journey. They went up a fair bit, even if it’s not to the level everybody wants it to be at. It just shows the power. When you realize the perception they have of someone else, it’s kind of fun to have fun with them. Make them face their own discrimination. “I thought this person was cool, then she said one word, and now I think she’s crazy”? I tell people I get one of three reactions, bad reactions: Running away, telling me they don’t believe me or never leaving me alone. That’s why I always say, ask people what they want. If they tell you they’re feeling better now, just ask them what they want to share. I don’t go into certain aspects of my journey because there’s nothing positive to pull out of them. I don’t focus on the negative.

Like what parts?

I had many bad experiences with therapists and with treatment in a treatment center setting. I grew up with parents who struggle to understand how I feel. They’ve grown a lot, but sometimes they still say, “Everything will be better if you pray” or, if I stay one day alone in my house, everybody starts calling me, telling me I’m depressed. I know there’s a lot of amazing parents out there understanding or trying their best. It’s just one of those things. I tell parents, bring your kid in! One way to summarize a bad experience: The person trying to help me is trying to treat the illnesses through me, without involving me. Like my parents, and the icon of depression is behind me, and they’re trying to throw things through me to get to it. Instead of asking, “What kind of treatment do you want?” And especially since I was young, no one thought to do that. It’s like fighting the thing within them, not engaging them. I like to tell people to go to as many evidence-based practices as possible. But I also tell service providers to make the treatment fit the person, not the person fit the treatment. It’s so much easier to fight what’s hiding in the dark shadows when you ask them to turn and look at it and not throw things through them. It’s like people trying to throw meds at you because there’s no time to talk with you. The medicine works when you believe in it and when you take it on an accurate schedule. I didn’t believe in it, and I didn’t take it long enough. But nobody ever talked with me to realize that was my personal stance. For some things, you need the meds. For me, somebody should have asked me. That’s why kids come up to me, say, on 15 different medications. For side effects, etc. I’m like, “OK, at a certain point you have so much medications you don’t know what’s working anymore.” I’m not anti-medication, but I advocate health care professionals talking to their patients about how they want to get better. And talking to peer mentors, showing them how to get up the mountains. And not everyone will benefit from a psychiatrist. And so it’s one of those things that’s a good message for people. There’s many ways of getting better. If it’s working for you, great. Be careful not to give advice to other people. I’ve had a few people go off their meds the next day: “I’m going to be like you.” I’m like, “No.” Believe in your journey. And there’s not an exact science behind this yet.

And I think one thing too is, I’ve had years and months where it’s been worse and better, where it comes back but not to the same extent. I try to show people that we are mental health superheroes, fighting our own bad guys. Nobody kills the bad guy the first time they fight them. They scare them away. And every time that you seek treatment, you have more sidekicks fighting with you. Some times are bad, but I’ve learned to pull happiness from my journey. I’m helped by that. By sharing my story, I keep myself on the straight and narrow. I have to get help. I can’t be a hypocrite, right? And yeah, sometimes I do have some bad days, but I’m kind with myself, and the reason I don’t normally share is that I don’t want people to think it’s horrible every single time or that it never goes away. I’m probably one of the more happy people you’ll meet. One message I like to give is, if you’re stuck in a place where they’re trying to diagnose you but it’s not helping, just say, “I don’t care what’s wrong with me, I just want to get better. These labels don’t make me better.” People think if you know what’s wrong, you’ll feel better. That’s not always the case. You can feel a sense of doom. Not everyone fits into these little charts.

You talk a lot about superheros. What’s with that? Are you a fan?

I’m a superhero fan, but I really wanted a new way of framing it. I wanted to show people they are strong, and they need to celebrate their strength and celebrate how awesome it is they’ve come this far and not get sucked into comparing themselves with people who don’t go through this. I joke that I used to call myself a mental health superhero in training. I also talk about intentional superheros. When you know someone is part of a stigmatized group and you be a friend to them, that’s how you change people’s minds about racism, sexism. I’m just going to treat you like a normal human being. You’re putting intention behind it, becoming a kind of superhero, becoming someone who will help them through their journey. And yeah, I’m kind of a nerd, whatever. Just taking off that mask and fighting the demons without your mask on and still showing you’re strong. All humans at some time wear a mask of some sort, but being able to show “This is me, I’m suffering with this” in the same way that people say, “I can’t come out today, I’m sick.” Creating the same situation: “I can’t come out today, I don’t feel so good.” Being a superhero shows people they’re strong. You’re dealing with something so much more than the average experience. You should be celebrating that, not thinking something’s wrong with you because you can’t deal with normal life. If you take a normal person and put them in a suicidal situation, their coping mechanisms in that extreme emotional situation, they would fail too. Just like we celebrate cancer survivors for beating cancer, we should celebrate people for beating schizophrenia or bipolar.

How did you start speaking out? And what were the reactions?

When I went to university, I had control of my life for the first time. I could do things and not justify them to anyone. So I started openly telling my new friends what I had went through. When I wanted to get involved with the health community, I was so comfortable with telling friends and family that I just told my mental health mentor at the university, and she said, “We need a speaker.” I gave the speech and was nervous as all heck. I got off there and people gave me big hugs: “If you need anything, let me know.” After that, I reached out to regional suicide prevention things. I would always mention I have lived experience too. When they heard me speak, they just recommended me to be on national TV, and when they needed a speaker, they’d bring me along. It was really just people empowering me, really believing in me. I went on MTV Canada, our national breakfast TV show, and after that I decided I wanted to give back to the community. I was working in research to the front line. I was involved with TED and said I wanted to give back. I tried to nominate someone else, but they said, “Why don’t you do it?” I put in an application and got a phone call two months later: “Can you speak?”

Some people want to have this journey. I’m lucky that people believe in me. I’ve had speaking engagements where no one shows, but I always have had a standing ovation at TEDtalk. I give off positive energy, and people want positive energy, too. It was the scariest thing of my life, but I had so many people share stories with me after that. Then I became a “face of mental illness” in Canada after that, for people with lived experience and who give back. We get to be in a national campaign, meet politicians, work with Bell, which is donating a lot to mental health. It’s been soaring since last year, really. There’s a lot of benefit in putting yourself out there, not only sharing your story but being involved in the community. Some speakers, all they do is speak. Others act out the message. I want to share my story but also want to influence a good message.

The message for other people is, when you start sharing your story, you will find people supportive to you. Allow yourself to build up, and when you’re ready to jump into big things, jump. But don’t jump into big things first. Your experience, for the audience, may be triggering. You don’t have to be 45, 50 years old before your journey with this is done. And show young people we don’t have to be at the mercy of our parents, psychologists, psychiatrists. We can stand up for ourselves. Because we are the only ones knowing our experiences in our heads. If we don’t feed into the dialogue, we will not be as effective as we could be. And young people deserve the best people just like anyone else. If you don’t like your therapist, don’t be afraid to fire them. Don’t be afraid to do what you need to do to get better, as long as it will help you live in the future.

Have your parents seen you speak?

Nope. Well, a that’s a little bit of a lie. They tried to see my TEDtalk, but they don’t know tech very well, so they didn’t get a live stream. They watched the video. My dad’s Portuguese, and he doesn’t understand how he can give me everything and how I’m not super-happy. I own my own journey. My journey is me. Sometimes people say, “We want you to bring your parents,” and I say, “No, this is about me.” I’ve had journalists say, “I want to talk to your parents,” and I say, “I don’t know what they’ll be able to tell you, I was so good at hiding it.” I think one day I’ll invite my parents to talk, but the journey is mine, and I want to stand as an independent woman. I did it alone. Because I assumed that people would reject me, and I want to show if people want to do it alone, they can do it alone. I do have parents who are very supportive of whatever I want to do in life, but with this journey, I shut them out and I’ve only let them in recently. I’ll let them see me speak, but they had no idea what was going on. My journey is something that I own. People try to share their coping mechanisms, parents do that, but that tends to not work for me.

You didn’t really mention the details of your attempt earlier. Do you choose not to?

I choose not to. I say I attempted, but … There is some evidence of contagion, and I don’t want to give people the method because, “Oh, look at her, she’s getting all of this attention now, I’m going to do this half-assed attempt and get this attention too!” Also, out of respect for my family and my parents. But yeah, it’s something that I do. I briefly talk about it because at the same time it’s hard for me to go there. I was somebody who, after being suicidal, it was only a couple years after that I started cutting. Not enough to get really deep scars that friends have, but I have one on my wrist. What we basically are doing is creating external pain to distract from internal pain. I’ve done things I’m not proud of, and I want to focus on the positives. I want to know there’s a possibility of living life for you again.

Are there other possible drawbacks?

It will affect your dating life, I will tell you that right now. I’ll be honest, I’m on a dating site because I’m a busy person. And I talk about being a public speaker. I guarantee nine of 10 people say, “Let me see it,” I send it and they never speak to me again. And you know, it’s painful. Whether people don’t want to get close to a person who they think is going to take their own life … You don’t want to be with people who don’t understand you. If they’re judging you based on one talk, I probably don’t want anything to do with them anyway. And your friends, you deal with a lot of weird initial reactions. I had one say I was faking it because I didn’t go into the details of my attempt, or because I’m better now. Just one of those things where you sit down and prepare an answer to those reactions. Just having a way of having a nice, canned answer for them. “Oh, you’re faking it” or “Oh, you’re scary.” Well, I’m sorry, but if you ever want to have a conversation, I’m here to help you out. And the faking one, I understand, because people are really good at hiding it, and I was too. But it took a lot of effort to get here. This is genuinely me. I do want you to understand you can get better. The first time I got that, it was really funny. Why on earth would anyone want to fake this?

Are you making good money or something in speeches?

Sometimes I get paid when I talk about how to create a discrimination-free workplace or school or whatever. I just think any time someone says something bad, they are scared at the notion it could happen to them, too.

Has any reaction caught you off guard?

My mother. The first time she watched me on national TV, she called me. Up to that point, she had been uncomfortable. I had been bracing myself, but she actually called me in tears and said, “You are my warrior. I thought I had something wrong. I wanted to take this pain away from you but didn’t know how.” My mom was the best surprise to me. I have had weird comments or advice. One person said to get rid of depression, walk on hot coals.

You didn’t try it?

No, I didn’t try. Maybe one day. It was just one of those ones that I just kind of went, “Huh?”

What if everyone just started talking openly? Are we ready?

I don’t know if people themselves are ready. Whatever journey you want to take, be it two or 2,000 people, it’s a personal choice. It’s up to you. It should be based on what you want to do with that message. It’s not based on stigma. With some people, five people know they went through cancer, and for some, 5,000 know. I want a world where people feel OK saying, “I went through that, too.” But as a society, we’re not ready for people to say, “I’m going through that, too.” Because the resources are not enough. People seek help, but they might have to wait a year and a half. So I feel like I’m dangling a carrot sometimes. I’m scared for that “I’m going through that now, help me.” We don’t have a good system to rely on yet. There’s not enough people to help them navigate the system.

You really think there are not enough resources to deal with everyone?

In Canada, there’s a six-month waiting period for psychiatrists and stuff, they probably agree with me for that. I think what we have to deal with more is, you know, having all the organizations work together to rally behind people and help them, but sometimes they all compete for the same funding and don’t want to work together. I remember filling out an application for To Write Love on Her Arms on my campus, but they said they can’t come if we have Active Minds on campus. I’ve seen lots groups working against each other. There’s two therapy offices in the town there I used to live. One deals with family violence, the other doesn’t. If someone comes in and says they’re being beaten by their husband , they would rather send to their partner office in the next town than the one two streets over. The petty competition needs to stop.

Well, I assume that’s a lot different than in the U.S.

Well, here people pay for it with tax dollars. In the U.S., it’s more private. It’s a problem in itself. Everybody deserves to get better. One good response is the surge in online communities in sharing mental health issues. All these people are rallying to help people get treatment. One of my best friends from Philadelphia, she reached out to me on Facebook after the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention posted a story of mine. Just the power of social media, having this community that’s not there face-to-face for a hug but can rally and give a support network when you feel you don’t have one. So people stay in treatment longer or fight for themselves more. I work with Your Life Counts, and they do an e-mail service. They say, “We give you an e-mail back in an hour and give you thought-out answers, so you have one person out there who believes in you.” It’s a great thing that’s happened. It’s really creating stronger people to go out and show people that mental health is something we can talk about. And empowering them to believe in themselves.

Do you know of any support groups online?

I think this a problem. I, with a gentleman in England, started one in the summer of 2011, I believe. But because it’s really hard to get people to talk about these things, we had to close it down. But I think the things you can do is, there are a lot of online communities out there. There’s a Twitter called The Buddy Scheme. You can say, “I need somebody.” And you can message them, you can ask them to find an attempt survivor to speak with over Twitter. Those things are going to come. It sucks sometimes to have to find an attempt survivor who’s a speaker and then e-mail with them, because there should be forums out there with everybody talking to everybody else. It has to come to that. Just knowing you have that person in your corner is a good thing. I have a couple of people in my corner who are attempt survivors.

(I ask about the common fear about attempt survivors sharing information.)

It’s misguided a fair bit. I think it’s very important to have a facilitator to create positive conversations. Make sure the mentor is really stable. There is a genuine danger of someone sinking, and it will be like trying help someone drowning. If you don’t have the proper life jacket, they can pull you down with them. There are times people are straddling the line between OK and not OK and don’t need more triggers. But these groups are good, like Skills for Safer Living. Teach them skills on how to live. We need to see that more often. You know, I have about 15 friends who are suicide attempt survivors. We can get together, laugh, watch movies, we are normal people. There definitely is that fear, but there’s a one in 10 chance this happens. That “We’re not trying this at all” makes no sense to me. Because yeah, especially youth, we definitely need to talk to people who have been where we are because we have built-in BS sensors. If someone is telling us what we know isn’t true, we can lose trust so fast. You know how Judy talks about a survivors conference and not feeling welcome. You have the BS sensor. Even if I’ve been through the same disorder, my experience is very different from others. But we will see more and more people talk about what they’ve gone through. There’s always the issue of stigma. You want to start support groups, but you can’t because there’s not enough people showing up. I tried to do a youth bereaved by suicide group, but no one showed up. Because no one wanted to be part of that, you know? I think, too, the more you can educate people in a fun, light way, the better. I work with Mind Your Mind, and they work with games and celebrities. You can learn about it and have a fun time doing it. One way to break down stigma is not have a lot of super-duper heavy conversation with a lot of anger.

Some people say you can’t laugh at this topic.

If you’re able to laugh at jokes that are well-meaning … Some people say you can’t laugh at this, it’s horrible, but I bet that at some point when a person’s back is turned, they laugh at them being crazy. But laughing with us is great. We’re human, just like anybody else. And sometimes humor and light atmosphere allows to ask questions. One of my big criticisms about the mental health field is it’s so somber. Have you ever watched “The Bridge”? My god. It’s like, “This is the most depressing hour and a half of my life.” It’s all about the balance.

Is there anything else you really want to share?

The way I like to end is, if anyone’s looking at this and suffering, just know you’re worth it, worth living for, you have a beautiful mind, and the world wants to hear what you have to say, though it might not feel like it sometimes. There’s a life to live, and there are supports to help you live that way. You’re strong, and you’re fighting for yourself. Just don’t try to do it alone. Reach out and realize you are deserving of the best possible help you can find.

Who else are you?

I love photography, bad cop shows, hilariously even though they make fun of mental health. I love laughter, pulling pranks, being like, you know, the bad mom jokes, bad dad jokes. I love helping people, even if it’s not mental health. I’m a recent psychology grad from the University of Waterloo. Just quirky little me, who loves a lot of things. And I’m not defined by mental health, mental illness, but I’m looking forward to beating stigma in our lifetime. It’s actually funny, I have a therapist I see every couple of months, and that’s what she asked me: “What else are you? It’s like it’s consumed your life!” Yes, but in the best way. I have time to go out with friends, joke around, be completely like girly girls, complete idiots, jumping into shopping carts in malls and stuff. I’m still a youth, so I do things youth do.

Talking with Carolyn Edgar

This month I came across The Siwe Project, which focuses on mental health awareness in what it calls the “global black community.” What drew me there was a newly posted essay by Carolyn Edgar, who describes herself as a Harvard law graduate, a writer and a single mom. Her essay for the project’s No Shame Day begins bluntly: “My name is Carolyn Edgar, and I have No Shame. When I was fourteen, I tried to commit suicide.”

You can read it here. July 2 was the first No Shame Day, which is meant to encourage people to seek mental health help without fear of what others might think.

The Siwe Project is named for a girl who killed herself last year at the age of 15. Her story touched something in Carolyn, whose essay describes how reading a popular novel gave her the language of depression “and, to my confused teenage brain, its cure: suicide.” She then learned how difficult and painful an attempt could be.

I spoke with her over the weekend:

The Siwe Project was started to bring awareness and reduce stigma around mental health. Bassey Ikpi, the founder of The Siwe Project, created No Shame Day and asked people to contribute stories that touched upon mental health awareness.

I’ve been in the process for a couple of years now of trying to pull together a memoir. I had recently written about my own attempt, and the story was fresh in my mind, so I decided to contribute my story to No Shame Day.

This was the first time you told your story in public?

Yes.

What were the responses like?

No one has responded negatively, as in, “Oh my God, I didn’t know you were crazy.” It’s all, “Thank you,” “It was brave of you to share,” “I’m sure it will help somebody,” “If you feel that way again, talk to me.” Generally, “Wow, we had no idea, you’re brave to come forward.”

The reason I decided to do it was the story of Siwe Monsanto, Bassey Ikpi’s young friend, a 16-year-old girl who committed suicide, which inspired Bassey to start The Siwe Project. When you hear about an adolescent committing suicide, people might think their problems aren’t serious enough for such a drastic step. People tend to minimize the problems of adolescents. But the life you have then, as a teenager, is the life you know. Real issues, real problems. And because people tend to minimize adolescent problems, they sometimes overlook the need for real treatment.

As for my story, at that time, people in my community were not forthcoming talking about mental illness. My family were not wealthy people, and my mother really had to ask around because resources were not readily available in our community. And the cost was a factor. We were not rich people. In 1979, it was remarkable that my mother understood that what was going on with me was serious, and that it needed a serious response, and that I required mental health treatment, not just taking me to see the pastor. She was visionary, and I really appreciate it.

Have you had other attempts since then?

Certainly I have had moments since then where I’ve thought about it. My attempt gave me information I didn’t have about what it would take to actually go through with it. The other thing I think about it is, you really have to want to do it. It’s not like in the soap operas, where someone takes pills and the family gathers around. You have to face the possibility that you won’t be found or rescued. You have to know you don’t want to be found, you don’t want to be saved. You’re making the decision, “This is final.” And watching my mother at the end of her life, refusing treatments for her heart condition, I get it. The decision to actually commit suicide is a very serious decision. And when there were times that I really thought about it, I was not ready for my life to end. I was ready for the pain to end. I realized they were two distinct things.

I never made another attempt, but I’ve certainly had those thoughts. One period in law school, I called my mother late, late, late one night, and I had had a lot to drink, and because of that experience in high school, she was so responsive, and I felt very comfortable admitting to her what I was thinking. Once again, she said, “You need to talk to somebody. Promise me you won’t do anything tonight, and first thing tomorrow morning, you go talk to somebody.” And I did.

You said your mother refused treatment for her heart condition. Is that suicide?

No. I think for a period of time I had that thought, though. None of us wants to die, but we all envision having some control over that final moment. My father, who died of lung cancer, decided not to have chemo because he wanted control over the life he had left. The likelihood of treatment curing his lung cancer was low. He wanted quality of life. For my mother, it was pretty much the same. I think my mother recognized that the probability of the treatment really prolonging her life for maybe weeks or months also meant not having the quality of life she had experienced. It’s not suicide as much as having control over how the ending occurs, wanting there to be a level of dignity.

Is there any dignity in that happening earlier in life, before the question of having an illness?

I think there can be. These are such personal decisions. It goes to the very heart and core of who we are and what we believe about how we want our lives to go. There can be dignity in those decisions. I think no one wakes up and frivolously says, “I’m done.” It comes after a lot of soul-searching, facing a lot of truths that are personal. Like Don Cornelius, taking his life because he apparently was in so much pain. He took his life in such a violent way, but again he was wanting to maintain control over the ending. It’s where the dignity factor comes in. Even in a situation where it’s not terminal. “If this is what functioning is, I don’t want to function anymore.’

Do you think it’s easier to come back and move on from a suicide attempt if it happens when you’re young?

I don’t know. It may be true that an attempt later in life becomes more of a stigma. I have faint scars on my wrists, and I have not covered them up, but no one has ever asked about them. Maybe they think it was some childhood accident. It always struck me as curious. I’ve never had the habit of wearing long sleeves to cover it, but no one has asked! They’re fainter now. But I always find it interesting. If no one asked, I wondered if people were embarrassed to ask or didn’t notice.

I don’t know, but I do think there’s something in just being honest with people about who you are and what you’ve been through that makes them less judgmental than if you conceal it. I’ve found that with other difficulties in my life, like going through my divorce. When I was trying to pretend everything was fine, I was suffering. But I found tremendous support in telling people. There was so much more support for that. Even with mental health issues. It humanizes you in a way. Everything has something they’ve gone through.

Is it harder with suicide? People seem to not know what to say or how to deal with it sometimes.

I’d agree with you. In the reactions to my piece, I didn’t get “I did that, too.” No one personally said they had made an attempt as well, but some said they knew people who had. You always wonder if some of the “friends and family members” were actually the person, not the person they “know.”

I’m not ashamed of that experience. I don’t think it should reflect negatively on a person that they made an attempt and survived. In my case, I didn’t come close to dying. I stopped myself well short once I realized how difficult it would be to do it. But I think in the recovery, whether an attempt one gets rescued from or, in my case, where you realize it takes a serious commitment to go through with it, in both cases you still have to find a reason to still want to be alive. In my case, I don’t see myself making another attempt. I have two children. I need to be there for them. I know I’m all they have. I’m a single mother, and their father is not really in their lives. I go to therapy on a regular basis, just to make sure I don’t get to that point again.

How old are your children?

My daughter is 15 and my son is 11.

What if they read your story about your experience? Or have they?

I don’t know if they read my essay. They do read my blog. When they become aware, when they read it, we’ll talk about it. They, too, have never asked about the scars on my wrists. But I talk a lot about therapy and mental health. Being in therapy when my mother passed probably saved my life. If they needed mental health treatment, I would not hesitate to get it for them.

Does suicide mean mental illness?

I felt I was depressed. I came up with my self-diagnosis with the book “Ordinary People.” I still love the way the book gave insight into the process of therapy. I decided, based on what feelings I had and what I was going through, that I was depressed. I was never diagnosed, but I saw a therapist a couple of times. I probably was suffering from depression. But I don’t think a requirement for someone to make a suicide attempt is to have mental illness, to have a diagnosis, something in the DSM. The fact that someone made an attempt may be the signal that something in the DSM may fit them, but I don’t think one necessarily follows from the other.

You asked about end-of-life decisions, is that suicide or euthanasia or something else. I think there’s a gray area where you can make a rational decision not to live any more and not have a mental illness. I don’t think that’s a popular opinion, but that’s the way I think about it.

Why is it not a popular opinion?

There’s still such a stigma around euthanasia and end-of-life care that anything else short of treatment is giving up, not fighting. I see people struggling with “What does fighting mean? Every little treatment, you should take it? What about the side effects?” My mother was not interested in being tethered to a wheelchair or a bed. And yet, it seems in this country that you can’t talk about such things without people talking about “death panels.” We’re not at the point in this country where we can have that conversation about the end of life.

And most suicides are tragic. Look at the people who are left behind. But all death is tragic. Perhaps suicide is preventable when mental illness is involved, but perhaps not. Who knows the pain and suffering a person is going through?

Is it perhaps better for someone to never mention their attempt, so they move on and don’t live in that moment?

Even if you are no longer in that place, acknowledging that you’ve been there can be huge for some people. Right now I’m a successful lawyer, with a great job and family. But when you don’t talk about it, you relegate it to only people who meet a certain profile. You always see in the movies some super-tragic event in life and the person suddenly takes out a gun and blows their head off. But that’s a stereotype. For me, no one experience made me do this. It’s a state of being. I think for many others, it’s not a moment but something they’ve thought about for a period of time. Suicide is a decision, and when I make a decision I believe in, it’s always the product of a very difficult but well-thought-out process. The “Thelma and Louise” scenario, I would guess that’s not a majority of suicides.

What do you think of the current resources, the suicide prevention groups and crisis lines?

I’ve not had the need to take advantage of the hotlines, and I can’t speak to what they’re like. I will say, I just don’t think that mental health resources in general are available enough, especially in underprivileged communities. And when they are available, they tend to be very expensive.

After a suicide, people ask, ‘Why?’ Do you think attempt survivors are in the best position to answer that question? Or is every death by suicide so individual that no answer really works?

Probably the latter. There’s no one “why.” People who survive attempts can understand the emotions, the thought processes, but no one ever knows why. Sometimes there’s no why. It gets back to the idea [that suicide is caused by] the catastrophic event, whereas it’s often something people think about for a while.

And I don’t know if asking “Why?” ultimately is a fruitful discussion to have. So if you find out that someone who was bipolar, for example, was suffering from an episode they couldn’t recover from, how does that really help anyone? Aside from saying, “Make sure people get appropriate treatment.”

Another question is, “What could I have done?” I think there’s a fair amount of arrogance in that question. If only they had talked to you about it, you’d be their savior. I always ask, “What exactly would you have done? What precisely would’ve been different?” But there’s the persistent belief that if only someone had known, they could’ve been talked out of it, and that’s not necessarily true.

Are there others who have come out about their own experiences whom you admire?

Honestly, I can’t think of anyone. People with mental illness never admit the depths the disease may have led them to. Catherine Zeta-Jones talked about being bipolar, but she never talked about what that meant day to day. You tend to get more from people talking abut drug abuse and addiction. There’s still a veil of secrecy around mental health, even when it’s discussed. Even in my own case, over the course of several years, there was a period when I tended to think of it as cutting, something less than a suicide attempt. So if someone asked, I had created a story around cutting, because it was easier to explain than suicide. It was not until working on my memoir that I came to process what it actually is and was. I can’t repackage it as something it wasn’t. There was a point where I took the razor blade and put it under my bed. I didn’t get into it in my essay, but there was a period of time when I would pull it out and make little slashes on my forearm. That was cutting. I felt a fascination with the thickness of skin and how much pressure it takes to make the most superficial cut. I just found it really fascinating for a period of time. But that was different from a suicide attempt.

When is your memoir coming out?

There’s no date yet. It’s something I’m still pulling together. My challenge has really been, “What is the purpose of telling my story?” It’s gone through several iterations. Telling the story of my suicide attempt came as a result of telling the story of being rejected by someone I liked. That has become a recurring theme, not feeling attractive, making bad romantic decisions. Working on this could be another couple of years. Hopefully not, though.

Finally, who else are you?

I’m a lawyer, a writer. I work for a Fortune 500 company. I live in Harlem. I have two kids. I have a cat. I’m a divorced single mother. I write, I blog. My pieces have been published by CNN.com and others. So that’s who I am. I like being a lawyer and a writer, trying to figure out a way to do both and not stop dreaming.

Talking with Cory Cobern

Cory Cobern is in the middle of making himself over. The father of two is soon to become a social worker and runs one of the very few support groups for suicide attempt survivors in the U.S. It’s encouraging to hear that his openness about his own experience didn’t keep him from working for a crisis hotline. The director welcomed him and got him to create and lead the support group.

There seems to be a common fear that people in such groups will compare methods and then employ them. Cory isn’t seeing that. In fact, he says, they turn each other off the idea with the fear of failing and being worse off than they were before. One person has liver problems. One has a reconstructed face. “Everyone pretty much says, ‘Why would I want to attempt again when everyone here has failed?'” he says. “It’s kind of a twisted way of thinking, but wow, here’s eight people who tried an average of four times, and none succeeded. They laugh about it now: ‘We tried so many times and still couldn’t end it? There must be a reason.'”

Now he’s wondering how to further crack the public silence around suicide. He recently fought for and got a front-page story about his group in a local newspaper, but he says he hasn’t heard one response.

“Everyone needs someone to talk to and not be judged like, ‘Wow, you’re weird,'” Cory says. “Because if you ask me, there are a lot of things out there that are a lot weirder.”

Who are you?

I’m going to be 43. I’ve been married for about 18 years, with two children. I worked in the computer industry for about 15 years, decided that was enough, and now I’m a senior at George Mason, majoring in social work. I have two brothers. I don’t know what else.

What’s your background in this area?

I have schizoaffective disorder. I was diagnosed with that when I was 30, when my mother died. I had some issues, major depression issues, and I went to a counselor. They diagnosed me, and my wife and I denied it and recently accepted it. The next year, my father died, and things continued to go downhill. We moved from California to northern Virginia in 2003 when our youngest son was born. And things were OK the next couple of years. I got out of my depression, everything. Then in about 2006, I started having issues with voices and suicidal thoughts, and after a couple of attempts, which were my first, I decided, “OK, maybe I have schizoaffective disorder,” and I started medication. I had more attempts until 2008. By that time, I was no longer able to work, things were too bad with medication. At that point, I was on a ton of medication, I think overmedicated. And I lost my job. And actually, it turned out to be a good thing. I spent the next nine months or so doing nothing. When I was at work, I couldn’t focus. I lost my job, stayed at home, things got worse and worse. And when I lost my job, I lost my benefits. I got on my wife’s benefits. I got a new doctor. I went through three or four doctors and they had said, “You’re on so much medication that we won’t take you.” I went to see her and she said, “I’m cutting your medication in half.”

Now I’ve been seeing the same psychiatrist for four years. I’m on a tenth of what I was on before. During this process I was at home, and she said, “You need to get out of the house.” I said, “OK, what do I need to do?” So actually, I signed up for my first online class at Northern Virginia Community College. I had hated school, was never a student, but looking back now, a lot of it was voices. I couldn’t focus. So I took my first class, passed it, and liked it. I started looking at other things I could do. I found the helpline, sent in a resume, was looking to volunteer. Then I got a call from the helpline asking if I wanted to come in for orientation. I went in and became part of the staff about six months after that. They had an opening and asked if I was interested. I said yes.

As I continued to do that, I was taking more and more classes. I had things to focus on. And so I started increasing my load of school, and in 2010 I got an associate’s degree. I am still with the helpline. I find that now, even if I have a bad day, I can get on the helpline and the bad day goes away. I can put everything of mine away and focus on others. So I continued to go to school, and my wife and I talked. I had always wanted to be a social worker, a therapist. In my yearbook, everyone knew. We said, “OK, let’s do that.” I started classes, slowly, and last semester I took 15 units, this semester 18 units.

My mindset has totally changed. Everything is clearer for me. I couldn’t build anything before. Now I can do whatever needs to be done. So I had, total, five hospitalizations. I have two children, one has Asperger’s, and the youngest has bipolar. It’s all been a wakeup call, a reminder of what’s out there, what others go through.

How old are your children?

12 and 9.

How did the attempt survivors’ support group come about?

It branched off the helpline. When I started, I was upfront. I really knew nothing about the helpline. I went in, went through training. My boss, Vicki, was very easy to talk to. Almost from day one she said, “I always wanted this group.” For the next seven or eight months, we talked about it. I started doing more and more. After about eight months in, she said, “So, what you think?” I said it was a great idea. We put together some ideas and launched the group in December 2010. And it’s been going ever since.

It’s hard to get anyone to really publicize it. Most people come from word of mouth. I’d love for it to increase, but I’m not sure how to reach people. It’s such a sensitive subject. The only things that are publicized are completed suicides or the family members, the survivors. This the only group of its type in Virginia, Maryland, D.C., the tri-state area. There are groups out there, a 12-step group based out of Memphis. But otherwise, this has been a big learning experience for me. All the materials, I come up with myself. I scour the Web. There’s very little out there. It redirects you to other things, like family members. There’s just very little out there for attempters.

Why did Vicki want to do the group, and why did she come to you?

She’s run a group for survivors for about 17 years, and she always wanted to run one for attempt survivors but thought she was not appropriate for it. She knew I was a previous attempter. She said, “You can relate to them, you have a common thread with them.” We weren’t sure how it would go over. And she’d never had anyone at the helpline who, if they had been an attempter, had informed her.

What made you comfortable in mentioning your experience in the first place?

I just felt that going to this type of work, I had to be open about it and not hide that I had a mental illness or that I had attempted. Nobody asked. I just felt it was something they needed to know in case things didn’t work out. Nothing personal, but if this makes things worse, I was not going to stay around. Once again, Vicki was so easy to talk to. A very easy person to talk to for two or three hours straight. She always seemed open and accepting.

How did you get the group rolling?

Good question. The first meeting we had was in December. I had five people show up. We had sent out a notice announcing the group. I sent a letter out to basically every therapist in Prince William County informing them of the group. I never heard back from any of them, but seeing as on the first day we had five people, they heard it from somewhere. I sent letters to hospitals in the area. That’s basically it. Also to the local papers and to The Washington Post. It’s not something I ever really delved into, where they heard about it. I know one person heard from her therapist. Another came to a teleconference for suicide survivors, actually two people. Others heard from word of mouth. What we have is, anyone who wants to come to the group, at an undisclosed location, they call the helpline and leave their information. I call back and do a phone interview to make sure they are actual attempters, make sure they are OK for the group. I don’t turn anyone away, but I don’t want anyone else there.

How did it go the first time?

The first time actually went very well. I kind of explained what I thought the purpose of the group was. I actually told my story, which kind of loosened everyone else up. I rarely tell my story. We have enough people to tell now, so I don’t have to. I wasn’t quite sure what to do, and no one seemed quite sure what to expect, so I said, “OK.” I told my story, and three others told their stories. The other two waited for a while to tell, but that was kind of the icebreaker.

What have you learned, and what has surprised you, in getting people talking?

I have a good core of people who have been there since day one or three months afterwards, and for the most part I start with, “How’s everyone?” _ a quick wellness check. I can rely on them to get others talking. If not, I know most of my group members now that I can say, “OK, what’s going on with you?” They may pause for a minute or two, or pass, but within 10 minutes they’re ready to talk. And this being an attempters’ group, there is no taboo subject, because anything can lead someone to another attempt. It can be a family problem, they got a bill, drugs, alcohol, family, work. We talk about everything, because it all affects.

What guidelines do you have?

I don’t have any. We have paper guidelines, but if somebody wants to talk about something, I’m open to it. I don’t want anyone to go home and say, “This was on my mind.” I always tell them, “I’m never going to leave you more upset than when you came in.”

Is there any kind of safety net for when the group isn’t in session?

I don’t really have a safety net outside observation and listening to everyone. Should I have people sign a safety contract? I’ve gone back and forth. I’m just a facilitator. I gave everyone the helpline number, and I gave all my cellphone number. I’m kind of still playing it by ear and winging it, because it’s worked. I have people say, “I’m upset,” then after an hour or hour and a half say, “I feel better.” I try to enforce that they talk to people, family,. And the core group members, they’re not shy. If they’re feeling bad, they spit it out.

How many people do you have now?

Four come regularly. Up to six people max. To be honest, if I ever get 12 people regularly, I’ll close the group and start another. That’s my max number.

Did you come in thinking you knew everything because you’re an attempt survivor?

I thought I knew a lot of it because of the helpline more so than my story. I deal with so many people who are suicidal on the helpline that it really opened my eyes to see the larger picture beyond myself. It’s really a blessing. When I went in, I had no idea what to expect, going in blind. None of the stories have really surprised me. Maybe dismay at hearing how they tried, how many times. I thought I tried a lot with five, but that’s very little compared to some of them. Or the severity of their attempts, or the lasting consequences. I have someone with liver problems because they tried to overdose on pills. I have another who says, “I’m here for a reason, because I didn’t succeed.”

Do you get into them wishing they hadn’t attempted?

I don’t recall hearing from anyone who wished they hadn’t, because it’s part of who they are now. The biggest wish I heard is that they hadn’t tried it that way. I think everyone who continues to come to the group is, well, let me step back. When we started, a number of people were thinking suicide was an option. Now, either they’re lying to my face, but they say suicide is not an option at this point. My last one, she’s still not entirely taken it off the table, Her future was always in the next two or three months, but now it’s, “Well, maybe if my husband dies, that’s the only option.” It’s no longer, “Well, maybe next month I should try.”

And everyone pretty much knows now, everyone pretty much says, “Why would I want to attempt again when everyone here has failed?” It’s kind of a twisted way of thinking, but wow, here’s eight people who tried an average of four times, and none succeeded. They laugh about it now: “We tried so many times and still couldn’t end it? There must be a reason.”

What’s the reason? Have you found it?

Some people say God. I don’t know. They say, “Wow, you tried 300 pills and you’re still here? You tried a shotgun, and you’re still here? You ran into an electric pole going 120 miles an hour, and you’re still here?” I’ve heard people who said, “I took 20 pills and thought it would do me, and you took 300?” They look at each other and go, “Wow.” Like me, I couldn’t do pain. A lot of people say that. That’s not really an option. They kind of turn each other off.

When the issue of attempt survivor support groups comes up, people mention the fear of comparing methods and getting better at it.

My group is fear of failing: “Wow, we tried this many times and didn’t succeed.” The fear of failing and the fear of failing and being much worse off: liver problems, being brain dead and being on a machine. It’s interesting to see how they progress, how we’ve all progressed over it, from the first day or so. How the mindsets have changed, how they’ve changed each other. We listen to each other, respect each other. One of my guys, he was in prison, he just says, “What’s bugging you?” Most of my people are very refined. He’s an ex-con. The nicest guy, but he’s not going to pussyfoot around. He’s gonna ask.

So how will you get others to join the group? You sent me the newspaper article …

I was hoping. I haven’t heard anything since that article. I haven’t heard from a single person. It’s very daunting. I fought to get this article done, and they obliged me, and nothing came of it. One thing I’m hoping is, starting in September, I’ll be doing clinicals at a mental hospital. I will be working with suicide attempters. I hope to increase the numbers. I don’t know. I was very gung-ho when the group started. I was going to the local community college, literally 10 minutes away. Now I’m going to George Mason, a minimum of 45 minutes away. I’ve got clinicals, internships. I don’t have time to go to the library and put up a flier. I don’t have time to do that anymore. It’s very frustrating because I don’t know how to grow it. I would love to get involved with local hospitals and have them refer.

The reporter who did the article said the police scanner mentions seven or eight suicide attempts a week. Well, how do I reach those people? I thought the article would help, especially considering it made the front page. I think it’s gonna take a lot more. I think it will take actually going to hospitals, meeting with somebody. I think it will take someone higher up in hospitals or the police department to say, “Tell them about this.” There’s gotta be a way. I’ve talked to different attempters’ groups like in California, and no one can give me ideas on how to grow the group.

At least you know a common situation.

Right. It’s a very taboo subject, and people are very afraid to talk about it.

What makes you so comfortable with being outspoken?

One thing, I’ve been there and seen the worst. My wife, kids, brothers went through all of that with me. My psychiatrist enabled me to become the person I am with her support and correct medication. Vicki was supportive since day one. Working the helpline has opened my eyes in so many ways. And I always wanted to be a social worker. If you can’t advocate for yourself, who can you advocate for? My convictions run deep: In order to truly help someone, you have to help yourself. I’d be a crummy social worker if I had attempted suicide and only tell someone, “Oh, you don’t want to do that.” I think that’s the big thing. I have no problem being honest and open.

Should therapists talk about own experiences?

In my opinion, I think a lot of people go into this type of field because they have had these issues, regardless of it being domestic violence, sexual abuse, suicide. Maybe not to them but to family or friends, growing up. I think it influences a lot, more than they’re willing to admit. I’ve had a lot of people say, “Wow, you used your first AND last name in the paper!” I’m OK with it.

What’s it going to take to get more people to mention their first and last name, or to mention this at all?

Lots more exposure. It happens. There’s nothing wrong with somebody who just happened to try to take their own life. They shouldn’t be an outcast, a pariah just because they attempted. There’s so much confusion, they don’t understand: “Why would they do that?” Well, they really don’t know what’s going on in their lives, their mind, just like we don’t know what’s going on behind closed doors. I just think a lot of it is that people are confused and scared by it, because I think seven out of every 10 people have thought about it, whether very seriously or just wishing to end it all. I think a lot have thought about it in passing, and it scares them.

Because they don’t want the thought to become more serious.

Right. Or they don’t want to be embarrassed or ashamed or something. That’s only my opinion.

What else would you like to say?

I guess the biggest thing is, we’re trying to help ourselves out of this. I understand, I’ve been there. When you’re in the deepest, darkest hole, it’s hard to get out and see any sunlight. Suicide is a permanent solution to a temporary problem. Every one of my group members can attest to that. No matter how bad it is, it can get better. Everyone needs someone to talk to and not be judged like, “Wow, you’re weird.” Because if you ask me, there are a lot of things out there that are a lot weirder. I’d take a suicidal person any day other than a homicidal person, you know.

Who else are you?

My wife, Jayne, we started dating when I was in high school, and we’ve been together ever since. I have two boys. Literally, if I’m not in school or at work, I’m doing family time with my wife and kids. There is not a whole lot else. I have a half-brother and full brother, both in California. Unfortunately, I don’t get to see them that much.

I think a lot of this progressed with both my parents. My mother with pancreatic cancer, then my father with pancreatic cancer. My mother died on Oct. 15, 2000, which happened to be my father’s birthday. My father died a year and five days later. They’d been divorced 12 years. 12 years? Longer than that. Anyway. My mother despised the man. I have no doubt she died on that day for a reason. And her last days were a morphine-induced coma. I have no doubt she managed to save herself for that day. I also have no doubt my father never stopped loving my mother. They made me who I am today. Their deaths were so close together. When my mother was diagnosed, she was told she had months to live, and she lived three years. My stepfather took care of her, but during the week, I’d be there. Otherwise my older brother would be there. And I was there when she died. That really devastated me. My father a year later fell and broke his leg, and we took him to the emergency room. After being there nine hours, we knew there was a problem. Two weeks later, he was gone. So cancer, yeah, really opened my eyes. Even though it devastated me, it also helped me become who I am today.

This probably is not a fair question, but would you ever consider suicide again?

I would never, ever consider suicide again. Never. Ever. No ifs ands or buts. The only suicide I would consider is no life support, no extraordinary measures.

Is there any one thing that brought you to “No, never”?

I think it’s the combination of realizing I have mental illness, my wife’s support, the helpline, and now everything I’ve learned in social work classes. Now I know the statistic that every suicide is said to affect 60 people. You know, whether it’s your next-door neighbor or whatnot, but wow. Also, you know, it’s more likely that if someone you know commits suicide then it’s more likely that you commit. My youngest will be 9 next month, and he’s been hospitalized three times for suicidal ideation. I could not be a role model for that. Because if I took what I consider now the easy way out, then: “Well, Dad did it. I can do it.” Does that make sense?

Those are why I would never. I see people with terminal illness. When I started with the helpline, one question was who believes in it, to what degree. Then, it was, “Sure, yes.” Now it is, “No.” It will get better. It really will. I have a frequent caller, calling more than a year now. When she started, she had cancer and wanted to end it. The doctors were, “It’s terminal.” A year later, she’s cancer-free. It just goes to show, you never know. And if you take that quick, easy _ not necessarily easy _ that quick jump, you don’t know what you’re missing, your entire life could change.

I guess you could say the same thing about me. Now I say never. Could that change the next year? I guess. I don’t see it changing. I know I put my family and friends and everyone through hell, being hospitalized and everything. I can’t see doing it again.

Talking with Heidi Bryan

When I saw that Heidi Bryan had managed to write a book with the words “suicide” and “irreverent” in the title, I wanted to know more.

I first reached out to her a year ago when I was looking for support groups for suicide attempt survivors and found, to my surprise, that just a handful exist across the U.S. _ if that many. (Why?) Heidi created one of them. She also has lost family members to suicide and has been active in those survivor groups, which are far more common. Her book is “Must be the witches in the mountains: An irreverent guide for knowing what to say after someone dies by suicide.”

Heidi makes a great point about the silence around suicide. “When I was young, people didn’t talk about cancer, either,” she told me. “They whispered it. And look at where we are now.”

You can see more about her book and what she does here and read her own account of her experiences here.

How did your book project start?

It was after a suicide loss. I was talking to people, and people just said these stupid things. The one thing my family taught me was a sense of humor. I just make fun of things, use humor as a tool. Also, I get annoyed. I get annoyed when a woman said, “You have to change your name (of your group). Suicide in your name is not good.” I said, “But that’s the point. I want people to talk about it.” And when we setting up the event, people were saying, “Oh, this is gonna be a fun group.” Yes, there’s life after suicide, after an attempt, after loss. And you know what? We get to be normal people. We’re not these morose beings who walk around through life and say, “Oh me,” you know?

Humor can be so healing and so free. We do laugh again, and that’s the whole point. We’re choosing life, we have dealt with life, we’re learning how to enjoy life. But … Sorry, I got on my soapbox. But it’s still pissing me off. I mean, what do they think about us? People say, “Oh, I wanted to hold a survivor support group but couldn’t because of liability issues.” What, do they think we sit around and pass around razor blades? What are they thinking? So.

Do you have other examples?

My personal favorite that happened to me was, an addiction counselor was sitting next to me, and it was the day after my brother died. She turned to me and said, “Don’t feel guilty.” I kind of wanted to say, “Thanks, I never thought of that!” I just thought, “What a stupid thing to say!”

Did you say that?

No. I just said, “Thanks.”

And the title of the book. Someone, she lost her son to suicide, met with women from her church. They said they were talking and decided that it must have been the witches in the mountains who put a spell on him.

Where was this?

I forget, down south somewhere.

The book is for friends and family. Not for those who have attempted suicide.

Right. But I do a lot of presentations and trainings around suicide. I always do throw humor in them. I’ve gotten a lot of comments about them: “I didn’t think this could be fun.”

What do you do?

I make fun. I once read that one of the warning signs is hoarding pills. I share in my trainings/presentations that I started hoarding pills when I was young, and I did it throughout life. No one ever knew that. And I said it’s kind of funny, because it’s kind of like an alcoholic who gets sober and finds bottles all over the place. I’ll clean and I’ll find these bottles of pills. So I say I’m glad I didn’t do it, because it’s sure as shit I wouldn’t remember where I put them all. I don’t say it that way, but I just joke about it. I just poke fun at mostly myself.

And I tell them, “I don’t know about you, but my first impulse when someone tells me ‘I want to kill myself,’ my first impulse is, ‘Oh crap.'” I think it’s human nature to automatically panic. But take a deep breath.

And people connect with this.

Yeah.

What do people’s faces look like? Is it an odd environment? How do you break the ice?

It depends. The worst environment was a prison. I had to give a presentation for prison workers. And they didn’t want to be there. And you could tell. It was mandatory. It was hard. They were sitting there and had their arms crossed. I just start talking to them about me, why I got in this. I got in because my brother killed himself, and I tried, but his death saved my life. In a way, my opening myself up to them kind of softens them or something. And sometimes it falls flat. The hardest thing is to get that first person to ask a question. Once that happens, they start relaxing. They’re usually dour and quiet until then. I want them to get rid of this perception they have that we’re so serious. You can tell sometimes they’re shocked. You can see their face.

How do experts respond?

I think usually when I’ve told my story, then they come up and say, you know, they’ll thank me.

Do you know anyone else who takes this approach?

To be honest, not off the top of my head.

Do you feel there are things that ought to be said or addressed but aren’t?

I don’t know. I have to think about that. I think what frustrates me is, it seems to me a lot of times the clinicians and researchers think it’s a choice. And I don’t know about you, but I don’t see being suicidal a choice. I don’t want to feel this way. I don’t want to be this way. And I don’t think I have chosen to be this way. It’s the way I’m wired, really. And I still don’t think for the most part they get it.

But they’ve been studying it for so long.

Not really. If you look in the field, the medical history, they really haven’t. I honestly believe it’s a disease and should be categorized as its own diagnosis.

What should?

Suicidality. I think there’s a lot we don’t understand. And I think we should talk about it.

How to talk about it?

You just do it.

It’s not easy to bring up.

Right. I know. Another thing I can joke about is, I can clear the room in 10 seconds flat: “Gotta go!” But I’m not gonna apologize for it. I remember my father-in-law’s funeral, and a relative asked me, “What do you do?” I said, “You don’t want to know.” Finally, I said, “I started a suicide prevention council, but I don’t like to talk about it because everyone gets all silent.” And they all got silent. And I said, “See?” and they started laughing. It broke the ice.

Maybe you’re too young, but when I was young, people didn’t talk about cancer, either. They whispered it. And look at where we are now.

If you had the means, all the money and resources you needed, to make this topic more open, how would you do it?

If I had unlimited funds, I would love a social media campaign, public announcements on TV. And people would realize it’s everyone. There’s no discrimination. It’s all of us who’ve been affected in one way, shape or form.

There are survivors and attempt survivors. You’re kind of in the middle.

That’s another dream I have. Are you familiar with Compeer? They just kind of help each other, and I think one has more recovery than the other. They kind of mentor each other. I would love to establish a program where attempt survivors are paired up with someone who lost someone to suicide. So the attempt survivor can see the effects on others, and the bereaved could help someone because they couldn’t help the one they loved. I think it would be a wonderful pairing. Maybe not all could do it, but I’d love to see it.

Have you ever proposed it?

I brought it up at a consumer/survivor subcommittee at (National Suicide Prevention) Lifeline, and the idea was well-received but the problem is the usual _ how to get funding.

The other thing I’m never giving up on is to start a peer support group for attempt survivors.

You already started one.

I had. Ken Tullis had started Suicide Anonymous. I want to do a different model. It just didn’t work.

How would you set it up?

I need help with figuring out the format. It would need some structure. I don’t want it to become … I don’t know. You want it to be helpful, offer tools, but also everyone would be able to talk.

Interesting that you use the word “tools,” since people have worried that people in such groups would trade advice on how to kill themselves.

I’m not surprised to hear that. I know that with our Suicide Anonymous it was not like that at all. The one thing everybody always does is, the first thing that helps me when I’m suicidal is being able to talk about it. When you’re with a group of other people, you certainly aren’t going to say … Well, I’m a recovering alcoholic. There was this woman who would come into the meetings drunk, saying, “I drank this and that …” Finally we came up to her and said, “You have to be willing to stop drinking. In the meeting, you can’t really be talking about this and that mixed drink.”

Did you kick her out?

Yeah. We didn’t kick her out, but we questioned her desire to stop drinking. And I think it would have to be something like that, rules and regulations.

So one of the rules would be, you can’t talk about methods. I mean, you can’t elaborate and go on about it.

I kind of want to ask you to get back on your soapbox and say what else frustrates you.

Ha! You mean, like the lack of funding for suicide prevention? There’s so much for money for breast cancer. And so many thousands die of suicide every year, and it hardly gets anything?

Also, the perception that people have of us.

Do you think therapists, etc., should have to talk about their own experiences? So people can know what their point of view on suicide is?

That’s a good question. I don’t know if I could say it should be required, but … I don’t know. I think about my therapist and I think at first he didn’t get it, and I know we went through some tough times, and I feel like in the end I kind of taught him and we learned from each other. I could tell that he had never experienced it, and it did frustrate me. But it didn’t mean that he couldn’t help me. Then I think, but on the other hand, for survivors of suicide loss, it’s almost imperative to have a therapist who has had a suicide loss because otherwise they don’t get it. You can tell. You can tell.

I say that, but then I think of these other therapists who haven’t lost anyone to suicide and ended up very compassionate and did get it. And so it’s a fine line. I don’t know.

It just seems, the idea of being locked up for talking about it …

You’re absolutely right, some therapists don’t have the training, and yet they won’t get the training because they think they don’t need it. Because how many of them do freak out? How many of us don’t tell mental health professionals because they do freak out? And for a while with my therapist, he was going to be the last person I told. There was a point early on where I felt he didn’t get it and I decided, “Well, I won’t tell him.” And I have friends who say the minute they mention it, the therapists pull out a contract to sign and they do it just to shut them up.

Is that contract useful?

No, they stopped using it.

So how do you pick a good therapist?

Yeah. I think, my brother told me, you call them and interview them like with anything else. If you don’t like their answer, call someone else. And I think we do forget that, we have that right. And we have the right if we don’t like them to not go. You have to shop around.

I read the short autobiography you wrote of your experiences. What does it feel like to want to die? And do you still feel that way?

I don’t think it will ever go away, completely, but it has gotten a lot, lot better. I believe for me it’s like an addiction. When I get stressed, my suicidality is a chronic illness. I just have to maintain; I have to work at it all the time. When I don’t take care of myself, when I get stressed, it comes back much more readily than other times. If I’m doing everything right, it’s not nearly so prevalent. When I’m in a bad place, my first thought is, “I hate myself, I want to die.” I just have to challenge it. It’s not constantly, but it won’t ever completely go away.

Is it words or an actual physical feeling?

Sometimes it’s actual physical feelings. It comes over you and it’s like wrestling with the devil, but that’s rare. It’s only happened once in this past I don’t know how long. Other times it’s like this automatic feeling.

Your husband, can he tell when you’re not so great?

It’s got to the point where I can talk to him about it, tell him I’m having a bad day, feeling suicidal. It can’t be easy for him, and I try not to lay that on him. I just tell him I’m having a bad day. You know. Usually after I talk to him, I feel better. I realize that a couple times when he came home late and couldn’t find me, it must have scared the shit out of him. I asked him and he said yes. I said, “I’m really sorry you had to go through that.”

But you just weren’t there.

Right. I was just doing something else. But for that split second he was thinking, “Oh my god, she did it.”

(I ask about the theory behind this blog and what she thinks of it.)

I know this kid who jumped off a cliff. He’s in a wheelchair, and I think he’s going to be that way for life. And other people who altered their lives so physically. I don’t think that’s hardly ever talked about, and I think that’s another real part of it. No one addresses it. You’re the first person I’ve heard address it. I don’t know. And then other people who survive, and others who could have been saved and aren’t. And that’s why I always say about self-harm, “Don’t think for a minute that they can’t kill themselves. They can misjudge.”

I think not enough attempt survivors come out of the woodwork to talk. I think we need more of that, to say, “It didn’t work, you know, and now it screwed up my life. That’s why we need help.”

There’s also assisted suicide. Are that and suicide two different topics?

Different. A part of me, as I’m getting older … When you have a fatal illness, you know, and you know you won’t survive and have only a few weeks, you have the right to end it and save your family thousands in medical bills and your family pain. But I had a cousin in his 70s and an uncle in his 90s, and both killed themselves. The families were still devastated. It’s still suicide! Maybe if they had said, “I can’t go on anymore, there’s no point,” maybe we can get them help. The point is, it’s still suicide!

How much of the pain of losing someone is the surprise of it?

I think it just adds another dimension to it. My brother, it was a shock but not a surprise. It was with my cousin, that was a shock, because I didn’t know him that well. It just adds another, like, layer to it. It depends on how .. It just adds intensity. But I don’t think it’s the defining thing.

I’ve heard about these new regulations for attempt survivors who publicly tell their stories …

It’s kind of, it’s not like rules, but it’s just helpful. I think first of all some survivors, when they talk, go into gory details. They need to do that, but the audience doesn’t need to hear it. It’s part of their recovery or something. It’s not pleasant, and you’re left with these images. You just don’t want it out there for impressionable people. I think there’s also, when you enter this world and start sharing your story … Leah Harris once said that when she dates, she wonders whether they Google her. When I moved to Wisconsin, I thought about my neighbors, whether they Googled me.

You can have some loose cannons out there. They think they’re being useful, but really not. So they need some help. You don’t really need to go into, “And then I took 20 Xanax and a sip of vodka,” you don’t really need that.

And you need to be prepared. People are going to come up to you with their own stories. Or, “I have a cousin who’s suicidal, can you talk to them?” And you’re like, “No! I can’t!”

Does that happen often?

Not often, but it happens enough. You get e-mails from people. I’ve gotten used to them. I just forward them to Lifeline, and they do it for me. I forgot about it, and I had a volunteer who was checking my e-mails who said, “Oh my god, you got an e-mail from someone who’s suicidal! What do I do? I didn’t see it right away!” You know.

How many people do you hear from?

Since we put everywhere we can that we’re not a crisis center, maybe six a year now. So not so much anymore.

Do you ever get sick of talking about this subject?

Well, I don’t do it as much anymore since I moved to Wisconsin. It’s funny, when I go on vacation, I pick up a book, there’s a suicide in it. I watch TV, there’s a suicide. “Jesus Christ, I can’t get away from it!” I’ve just given up.

Where can we find your book?

On the website. Barnes & Noble. Amazon.

Who else are you, outside this issue?

Well, I’m a wife. And I’m a dog owner. I am … I don’t know! I think about this and have always rebelled _ a suicide survivor, a recovering alcoholic _ but I’m also discovering this side of me, making chocolates, I just painted a chest, made my own stencils … I guess there’s a more creative side of me than I thought.

Chocolate?

It’s really fun. I used to be a chemist. Making chocolate is really chemistry.

Talking with Patty Overland

During our chat last month, Kristina Yates told me to speak with a friend of hers in California. She’s in a wheelchair from her suicide attempt and she’ll tell anyone about it, Kristina said. But that openness didn’t come right away. Patty Overland lives in the Bay Area and is a co-founder of Wry Crips, a performance group for disabled women.

I’m manic depressive. I had one manic episode when I was 17, when I was hospitalized in New York City and electroshocked there. I finished high school and went a year to Fordham. But I went to a Jewish girls’ summer camp _ I was raised Catholic _ and at camp I had my second manic episode. I told one of the girls I had been in a psych hospital, and some of them teased me, they were kind of mean. So then I went home. I had decided to study physical education at a community college upstate, but then I just didn’t feel like it. I came home to Staten Island. I was just getting more and more depressed. I was looking for work, but I couldn’t keep up with the math, even though I was a good student and good at math. You know, it’s not a question of how smart you are.

I started slashing my wrists. The doctor said to go to the psych ward in Staten Island. I was there for a couple of weeks. I met a couple of young people I liked. When I went home, I was depressed again. Then in November I went to visit friends in the Bronx, but I had the feeling that something not good was going to happen there. Something was wrong with me. One friend said I was like a ghost of who I used to be. I got drunk and I was like a wild animal. I smashed my hand through glass, and she called my parents to come get me.

I didn’t know, but I made a leap out of the fourth-floor window. I woke up in the hospital, surrounded by people in white. I thought they were angels.

I shattered the bottom of my spine. For the first month, it was a good thing that no one put any weapons by my bed, because I was not a happy camper. They kept putting older dying women on either side of me. Finally they put a younger African-American woman who had a broken pelvis and a nice smile. It was good to be next to someone my own age.

So I went to a rehab hospital in Manhattan. I did a lot of physical therapy. This December, it will be 39 years.

I knew I wanted to get back to school. I had met a woman in rehab who’d been at Cal-Berkeley, and I had kind of followed her out and became a student there. But then I had another nervous breakdown. I ended up being hospitalized for six months. I ended up going back east and being hospitalized again.

(She made her way back to California and started seeing other women.)

I’m in terrible physical condition now. In 1982 I had a secondary condition, which from the base of my spine to my brain started to form a cyst along my spinal cord, to lose sensation. Before then, I was a pretty good partial paraplegic.

I was seeing a nurse who took me as I was. She was also a suicide survivor. She had made a very serious attempt in her 20s. What was weird about her story was that her father was a doctor and he didn’t want the ambulance to go to the hospital where he worked because he didn’t want to be embarrassed in front of his colleagues.

(She also had a friend, Karen, who jumped off the Golden Gate Bridge.)

When do you just let it go? She’s been out of her demons for 24 years.

What about yours?

That’s a really good question. I don’t even know. I have music, I have support group on Monday nights, I’m in one-on-one therapy since 1996. I’m 58 now.

I try to keep friendships strong. I was going to say my strongest relationships are with other crip women, but there are other relationships. There’s also a disabled lesbian project here in the Bay Area.

In retrospect, if I had just waited for my parents to come to the Bronx to get me … But there are a lot of what ifs. I was looking to check out at the time. Now, two of my friends have killed themselves. I know what it does to friends. But me, I don’t even know what happened. I vaguely remember running toward the window.

When people ask, “Why are you in a wheelchair?” I just tell them the truth. I decided to be more honest after Karen jumped. What am I supposed to do? I can’t get away from it. The water off the Pacific coast always looks red to me now. My sister once told me she picked one of the most famous places to kill herself. What is that supposed to mean to me?

How much have we heard the word “suicide”? Suicide bombers … So much, that word.

What does it do to you?

It makes me kind of go inside of it a lot and a lot, then, “OK, time to take my medicine.” I just take my medicine. Now I have a lot of chronic pain and numbness.

Look, here’s the thing. If I had just waited for my parents, I wouldn’t be as fucking disabled as I am. But I’ve done some good things too. Coaching wheelchair basketball, acting. But in terms of how bad my body feels on a bad day, I try to keep my spirits up.

What were you telling people before when they asked about your wheelchair?

Oh, just a car accident. So they wouldn’t be nosier. Because now, people then ask, “Why did you do that?” So sometimes people kind of want to get in your business. “Why? Why would you want to take away your own life?”

When they ask, what do you say? Do you deflect the question?

It depends on who’s asking and on what kind of mood I’m in.

Should people be talking about suicide, and in what way?

I think they should talk. It never ceases to amaze me how many people this is an issue for. It seems that a lot of people have gone through it at some period in their life. In fact, I was at a butch lesbian conference and I was eating lunch with a young African-American woman and I broached the topic, and it turned out that she was a cutter. You never know. I was working with an Orthodox Jewish man in a nursing home, teaching exercise to people, and one time after class he said, “Aha, you made yourself a crip. I was born this way.” He was just making fun of me. He was very mean. I said, “Jonah, fuck you. It’s just what happened.”

There does need to be some discussion about it, and I think people do need to feel like there’s some help, but I also feel some really want to do it and are gonna do it. My friends, they really wanted to be out of their emotional pain.

Sometimes people … I don’t know. It’s an ongoing and open-ended discussion.

I’ve even joked. I know someone who works in a psych ward in Berkeley. She said the guy she was seeing said there had been a suicide on the floor. I said, “Oh, one less of us to worry about.” Sometimes I feel that cold about it.

I don’t even know what to do with my sadness, about that stuff. Because I’m in my late 50s. Life is finite.

You’ve mentioned others who have killed themselves. How to prevent it?

I’m not a therapist. I’m just trying to keep myself jacked up.

Does it help in any way to be open about it?

Just the truth. Sometimes my body just feels like razor blades and broken glass and barbed wire. I’m getting older, and I should bring some softness in. But I don’t want to not tell the truth anymore.

But other people hide it.

They do. They don’t want to say.

I met a woman once who thought it was a cool thing, being a survivor. It is a cool thing, because the other scenario was I could have died. I’m not saying it’s a cool thing to jump out a window.

I was fighting with a woman once. She said, “No religion would take you because of what you did.” I was raised Catholic, but I would say I’m culturally Jewish. On a bad day, I’m not sure I believe in any god at all. But that this friend would say that … I’m not looking for acceptance into a religion because of my attempt. Suicide is against life, I know that. I’m not looking for acceptance.

What else should we know about you? How do you describe yourself?

I have a first name, Patty. A last one, Overland, like travel. I am myself, you know? I’m known to other crips in the community. Also, I’ve done a lot of work in the blind community as a reader. And I was teaching expressive art in a drug rehab center in Oakland. Yeah, I’m myself. A lesbian. Mostly proud, though not in a relationship in a long time. Sometimes that’s hard. Because I’m not getting any younger, and my body’s not in good health.

I’m Irish, I’m Norwegian. Those are hard-headed ethnicities. The Irishness, sometimes that’s soulful, but sometimes they get too deep into it and get lost there. But it’s just what it is.

I forgot to ask. What’s been your favorite answer to your explanation about being in a wheelchair?

My ex-lover Nancy, she has this younger sister. She was with this guy, and we were going to the Santa Cruz boardwalk. I said something about being a suicide survivor, and then he said, ‘So am I.’

When Jeff did that … I think what happened is he might have asked beforehand, ‘How did Patty get in a wheelchair?’ The way he just said it, just like this very open way. You know. He was this young tattooed guy. It was a very sweet thing.

We didn’t really compare notes. It felt like it would’ve been invasive in that situation for either of us.

You just never know.