Cindy Myron has the intriguing job of mental health peer specialist, which is something I know little about but want to explore more. The idea of talking with someone who has “been there” and doesn’t mind saying so can seem more attractive than talking with someone who’s been trained to keep their experiences silent.
And yet, note her description of how people sometimes look at her, with the fear that she could press a button and get them locked away. How much do we keep to ourselves because of that fear? I wonder. On to the conversation.
Who are you?
I work as a peer specialist for NAMI. I work in a forensic program with people with mental health problems and often substance abuse problems as well. We help people with minor offenses to try to break the cycle of going in and out of jail and mental hospitals.
I’m going to start graduate school in mental health counseling in January. I’ve been working in the mental health field since 2000. From 2000 to 2002 I was attending college, studying psychology. When I graduated, I had a lot of traumatic experiences that led to an episode of psychosis. I had been depressed before, but hadn’t sought help. This time I attempted suicide. I tried to take a bunch of sleeping pills because this girl I’d worked with _ I had been envious of her because she was so pretty _ she killed herself that way, and everyone said she must have just drifted off to sleep _ what an easy way to go. I didn’t know that sleeping pills have the opposite effect when you take a lot of them; they stimulate you. I didn’t go to sleep for a very long time. I thought, “Should I take more?” but I didn’t want to be like my friend who took a bottle of aspirin at 16 and ended up with really, really bad stomach problems. I was afraid to mess myself up but still live. I went back to my parents’ house. I was hallucinating and thought they would shoot me to finish the job. I was rushed to the hospital in an ambulance, where I drank charcoal and had heart seizures. There was never a quiet drifting off to sleep.
From the hospital, I was committed to the mental hospital. I had a friend who had been hospitalized, and they took the underwire from her bra for her safety. They didn’t take my underwire away, and I thought, “Well, maybe this will work!” I tried to cut my wrists with it in the shower and made a bloody mess. They were mad at me; they bandaged me up. That was it. They later instituted a rule because of me: No underwires.
There are a lot of misconceptions about methods of suicide, but the most important thing isn’t the misunderstanding of the method, but the fact that at the time I felt there was absolutely no way out, no possible way that life could be good again. Now, I’m so glad I didn’t succeed. I’m happy, healthy, married, I have a job, I’m not suicidal, I’m not depressed.
I think the tragedy of suicide is that it’s based on the belief that there’s no chance you’ll get better. I was listening to NPR a few days ago and they had this story about vampires, and it was meant to sound like a true story, and I was a bit scared. It reminded me of H.G. Wells’ radio show about aliens that led people to kill themselves because they thought that aliens were coming and that this was the end. I don’t mean to trivialize _ suicidal people usually have very real and serious problems, unlike those aliens who were never coming _ but in another sense, it’s an extremely similar situation to me: You’re positive that it’s the end of things worth living for, and it isn’t. If you don’t succeed, you’re lucky because you can work it out for the better.
What if you don’t get better?
I’m not going to judge other people for their decisions. Some people who don’t succeed do continue to live lives of misery. But I certainly think that people who have succeeded might have lived on and gotten better. There was a young kid, 16, who killed himself recently because people were taunting him for being homosexual. I’m not homosexual, so I haven’t experienced the pain of being taunted for that reason, but you just wonder, if he had not succeeded, maybe he would have gone on to live a life as a happy person.
How do you stop people from challenging themselves in such a risky way, trying to kill themselves? How do you snap them out of thinking that suicide is the only way?
My family showed me a lot of love, and I gradually got better. Actually, and I don’t recommend this, but my dad told me that if I killed myself, he would kill himself too. I couldn’t live _ or rather, die _ with the knowledge that he might do that.
Despite my work in the mental health system, I didn’t realize at first that I was sick. Once I realized that, I realized that I could get better. I wavered, too, like, “This is really hard, I’m so depressed, I don’t think I can do this,” but I didn’t attempt again. Eventually I got to the point where I didn’t want to attempt. It’s not like flipping on a switch. I was like, “OK, let’s stay alive.” And then I took it one step at a time.
What helped you the most?
My family. And I read a book by Marianne Williamson, “A Return to Love.” I worked on learning to love myself, which I did not know how to do before. I didn’t really have any patience with myself before that. I thought I had to be perfect and productive all the time.
How did you find that book?
I was in Barnes & Noble with my family. It kind of jumped out at me. I don’t know if you have these moments, like divine intervention. I said, “Please, I want this book.” I didn’t have any money, and my parents were paying the bills. They were happy to buy it, and desperate to do anything that might help.
How do they feel now, your family?
My parents don’t really like to talk about that period. They just thank God it’s over. At the time, they were really sad and desperate. They got really disgusted with the mental health system. I see that when I try to bring it up, they’re like, “Yeah, well, let’s talk about something else.” Sometimes we mention it in passing, and that’s not a problem. I refer to that time in my life as “when I was sick.”
What part in your life does your experience play?
I was feeling passionate about the issues of mental illness and recovery. Then this happened, and I really felt passionate. It helps me do my job better. I’m going to get my degree, and then I hope to publish a book about my experience.
It’s not anything I would have consciously wanted for myself. It was a living hell worse than anything I could possibly describe. But it also brought gifts into my life that never would’ve happened to me, transforming my relationship with myself, with others and with my higher power. I feel I have more tolerance than a lot of colleagues do. When they say, “This person is annoying, make them go away,” I keep listening, to see what we can do for them.
What drew you to mental health work, since you started it before your attempts?
I guess on some level I knew maybe I had problems. I was depressed a lot before that happened. I drank a lot in college, and changed my major about 10 times. It took me a long time to get my degree. I finally decided on psychology: “Maybe this will help me figure myself out.” Maybe I was just, like, tired of switching. But I think it really just stuck.
Why talk openly about your experiences?
Because I feel it’s important that people know that you can get better from this, and if you don’t talk openly, not as much can be gained from that experience _ in a way, it means I went through that hell for nothing. This is something I can use to give to other people, that “Yes, I used to be as ill as you are.” I know some people don’t talk about it, and I respect their choice. There is a stigma. People have discriminated against me in the past. But I make it a priority to be honest anyway. I do talk generally with people I work with, because that’s what a peer specialist does, but I don’t get into all the details, unless I am asked.
What’s the benefit of talking with a peer?
You’re talking to someone who understands what it’s really like to go through what you’re experiencing, and you tend to feel that there’s a better likelihood that that person’s not secretly judging you. I think there’s definitely value in both the educational route and the experiential route of learning about recovery, and I hope to make the best of both worlds.
Should psychiatrists and therapists be required, or encouraged, to talk about their own experiences as well?
I certainly don’t think they should be required. I know a lot have been trained not to talk about their own experiences. Obviously if you’re in a session and you’re talking about yourself the whole time and not listening to the person, it’s not good, and it’s not what peer specialists or anyone should be doing. But if you say, “I’ve had my own challenges” _ and some therapists and psychiatrists have had serious ones _ that can help. Professionals have to use their own intuition. I don’t think there should be prescribed rules. But there are a lot of closeted peer professionals who could add to their work by coming out.
Where did you get your assumptions about various suicide methods?
I think we just hear different things, have different ideas about what would be a good or bad way to die. Sometimes you get ideas about the worst way. One time I thought, “I’m terrified of trucks, so I’ll run in front of a truck.” I thought I deserved to die in the worst possible way. But I didn’t have the nerve and the opportunity at the same time, thank God.
Some of the ways that are more scary, more violent, you’re more sure they will work. Statistically, women are more likely to attempt suicide, but men are more likely to succeed, because they tend to use guns. Women are a little more afraid of guns and brains blowing out.
There’s also the Internet. I’m pretty sure one of my friends looked for methods on the internet. Another friend read the book “Final Exit.” I remember my friend telling me he had read it and asking him, “So what are you planning?” I was scared, but he assured me he wasn’t planning to attempt suicide, and as far as I know he didn’t attempt. My parents ran into him quite recently.
Why would you trust anonymous online information?
I think people who are suicidal often are desperate and are not thinking clearly in the first place. And the internet is full of information, some good, some bad. I can’t recall what, if anything, I looked at regarding methods, so I’m definitely not an expert on quality versus non-quality information on killing yourself. I would not have known the book “Final Exit” existed if my friend had not told me. So where else would one think to look? Obviously there is no one who has been successful who is around to tell us what works. If really your goal is to kill yourself, who do you go to to say, “I want to kill myself, what’s the best way?” Then you get put in the hospital against your will.
Is hospitalizing someone the best response?
It’s a complicated issue. Committing people to keep them from hurting or killing themselves can save lives. I do wish these places were happier places, because people dread going there. So many people have been so cautious with me, they don’t want to reveal that they’re too depressed. If they say they wouldn’t mind if they died, they get panicky and ask if I’m going to send them to the hospital. But being depressed and not minding if you die is not the same thing as wanting to take your own life. Then sometimes people are lying, “Of course I’m not going to kill myself,” but they’re actively planning it. If they are that determined, sometimes there is no way to stop them.
People are afraid I’m looking at them, ready to press a button and send them to the hospital if they say the wrong words. I explain that I don’t have that authority, but I tell them the types of situations that would obligate me to call the police _ if they say they want to kill themselves or others. Then the police decide whether to take them to the hospital. Sometimes you have to do that, and it isn’t fun, but if lives are in danger, it has to be done.
If someone says, “Sometimes I wish my life was over,” that’s much more common, and I will have a conversation with them to make sure they are not in danger of hurting themselves. I want people to be open, but I let them know I will call the police if they are planning to kill themselves. They’re OK with that.
What else makes you you?
I’m married, I’m close to my family, I have a cat, I enjoy reading and writing and meditation and being outdoors. The school I’m going to has a certification in eco-psychology. It sounds interesting. One of my other passions is the environment.
What is eco-psychology?
I need more information before I know for sure that I will get that certification. Basically, it’s about the relationship between personal mental health and the health of the whole Earth. I just know it involves the environment, being outdoors and psychology, some of my favorite things, and I’m going to check it out.