Talking with Hugh Massengill

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

You talk publicly about this?

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

What are the kinds of questions people ask?

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

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

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

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

You pulled yourself up.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(He asks about my own experience.)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But what about in your case?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How did you end up talking at schools?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How would you like your life to end?

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

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

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

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

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

Who else are you?

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

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

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

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

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

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