“Shut up and deal.”

It’s the holidays. Time for another look at Billy Wilder’s “The Apartment,” one of the finest films around. I’d never paid much attention to its suicide attempt, but I do now. Note how the fast-paced plot deals with stigma, as Jack Lemmon (as C.C. “Bud” Baxter) talks his next-door neighbor, a doctor, out of reporting the suicide attempt of Shirley MacLaine (Fran Kubelik) to authorities:

BUD
She didn’t mean it, Doc — it was
an accident — she had a little too
much to drink and — she didn’t
know what she was doing — there
was no suicide note or anything —
believe me, Doc, I’m not thinking
about myself —

DR. DREYFUSS
Aren’t you?

BUD
It’s just that she’s got a family —
and there’s the people in the
office — look, Doc, can’t you
forget you’re a doctor — let’s
just say you’re here as a neighbor —

Then there’s the fleeting reference to attempt survivors being at risk:

DR. DREYFUSS
But you’re not out of the woods
yet, Baxter — because most of them
try it again!

And Miss Kubelik’s not-exactly-gratitude at being saved:

FRAN
I’m so ashamed. Why didn’t you just
let me die?

There’s the caution of C.C. Baxter as he tries to suicide-proof his apartment, slipping the blade out of his razor and pocketing a bottle of iodine in the bathroom, telling Miss Kubelik that his apartment is only on the second floor, and hurrying in from buying groceries to scold her about turning on the gas of his stove. (She didn’t know she had to light it to boil water.)

And the quick round of cliches from Miss Kubelik’s married boyfriend when he hears about her attempt:

SHELDRAKE
Fran, why did you do it? It’s so
childish — and it never solves
anything — I ought to be very
angry with you, scaring me like
that — but let’s forget the whole
thing — pretend it never
happened — what do you say, Fran?

Finally, the best scene because it’s brisk and believable and somehow un-shocking:

FRAN
I wonder how long it takes to get
someone you’re stuck on out of your
system? If they’d only invent some
kind of a pump for that —

BUD
I know how you feel, Miss Kubelik.
You think it’s the end of the
world — but it’s not, really. I
went through exactly the same thing
myself.

FRAN
You did?

BUD
Well, maybe not exactly — I tried
to do it with a gun.

FRAN
Over a girl?

BUD
Worse than that — she was the wife
of my best friend — and I was mad
for her. But I knew it was
hopeless — so I decided to end it
all. I went to a pawnshop and
bought a forty-five automatic and
drove up to Eden Park — do you
know Cincinnati?

FRAN
No, I don’t.

BUD
Anyway, I parked the car and loaded
the gun — well, you read in the
papers all the time that people
shoot themselves, but believe me,
            it’s not that easy — I mean, how
do you do it? — here, or here, or
here —
(with cocked finger,
he points to his
temple, mouth and chest)
— you know where I finally shot
myself?

FRAN
Where?

BUD
Here.

FRAN
In the knee?

BUD
Uh-huh. While I was sitting there,
trying to make my mind up, a cop
stuck his head in the car, because
I was illegally parked — so I
started to hide the gun under the
seat and it went off — pow!

FRAN
(laughing)
That’s terrible.

BUD
Yeah. Took me a year before I could
bend my knee — but I got over the
girl in three weeks. She still
lives in Cincinnati, has four kids,
gained twenty pounds — she sends
me a fruit cake every Christmas.

(Emphasis mine.)

C.C. Baxter doesn’t recoil in horror at Miss Kubelik (nor does the boyfriend), and she doesn’t at him. They go back to work and life goes on, bumpy as it is. A final echo of a suicide attempt, so to speak, brings us to one of the loveliest endings in film.

I mention all of this not only for the chance to read over the script, but to point out a deft treatment of suicide that never needs the tiptoe-ing sensitivity that sometimes makes the issue even more awkward. (The movie, by the way, is now more than 50 years old.)

The scene above, with Miss Kubelik laughing, reminds me of the relief I felt in talking with a fellow attempt survivor at the American Association of Suicidology conference earlier this year. We had never met until that afternoon, but we were soon making fun of our own attempts. “A steak knife?” she recalled sarcastically, rolling her eyes. “Really?” Appalling as it might seem to those who’ve never been there, it helped because we could find the humor. We were still human _ personality-wise.

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Talking with David Lilley

I don’t think I’ve mentioned this before, but I like talking with these people. Everyone has a personality that comes through, even when my set of questions are so narrow. David Lilley came across as having a salt-and-pepper personality, if that makes sense. I was a bit worried at the start, mostly because I wondered what he would say, as someone who works in suicide prevention, to a question about the right-to-die movement. As it turned out, he jumped in and answered before I had a chance to finish the question. Once again, I learned not to assume people’s point of view beforehand.

One thing lacking for me was not having anyone to talk to about it, to understand what I was going though. And I didn’t have depression. I had bipolar disorder with psychotic features. I wanted to avoid putting my family through yet another psychiatric hospitalization. I felt I was disgracing them in some way, they would be ashamed of me. I didn’t want to put them through the stress. That was one of the reasons. Another one was, I turned for help and nobody helped me.

What happened?

I went to my psychiatrist and said I was at the end of my rope. He said, “Just keep taking this medication, and you’ll be OK.” I was not OK. At work, I had just been written up for a disciplinary action for a patient safety issue. There was just a lot of stress going on. It was 1996. There had also been a lot of flooding in the area, with no power, no phone. I had a lot of stress and nowhere to turn.

Was there one thing that set you off, made you decide, “OK, this is it”?

I could feeling myself having another manic episode. My thoughts were racing. I picked up on that. I didn’t want to hear the voices again.

I saw part of the video you made for suicide prevention, you telling what happened.

There were many more details. That was more of a highlight, for suicide prevention.

If I were to tell my own story, I don’t know exactly how I would tell it. It would depend on the setting. If I was meeting a peer client and they were having suicidal thoughts, I wouldn’t go into detail about how I did it. I would wait and listen to them, tell them I understand they’re in distress. I think I’d try to stay away from the actual details. If someone was having suicidal thoughts, that might be a trigger.

I don’t remember, did you have more than attempt?

I had one attempt. I was working away from home. I wasn’t seeing my family on a daily basis. I was not interacting with my children, my wife. I was living with my sister. She didn’t really seem to understand what stress I was going through working away from my family. The job itself was stressful. That, coupled with the ’96 flood in this area. Things were a mess around here. I think all that stress spurred my mania, got my thoughts racing.

I think the one thing I do point out when I do talk about it is, a lot of people think suicide is always a result of depression. It’s not. It’s more like giving up, you know. Another thing I would share is, God saved me for a reason. I believe that reason is to help others. I’m very, very lucky. It was very, very close to becoming a permanent solution to a temporary problem. My faith is very important for me. The way God led me through that is very important.

I’d probably stay away from telling them the number of pills that I took, or that I had my gun with me. The only time I talk about it is to prevent someone from getting into that situation. Like I’m doing now.

When the state police got to me, I had almost passed out.

It was like a spiral I couldn’t get out of. The thoughts kept increasing, kept increasing, kept increasing. It was almost time for my children to come home from school. I grabbed the pills, the gun, and ran out of the house. I was afraid my 11-year-old daughter would find me with my brains splattered in the basement. At the end of the day I just ran, though the back garden and into the woods. It was very instantaneous, on a thought that I had dwelled upon most of the day.

Did you really think it would work?

It may seem very risky to someone who doesn’t have a mental illness, but to others it seems a very viable and rational way to end suffering. Whether end-of-life suffering, whether midlife depression. Once I started dwelling on it, it became more and more rational.

You didn’t consider the risks? Liver failure, etc.?

No. That was entirely blocked out. I wanted this to stop, I wanted this to stop, I wanted this to stop. I didn’t want my wife to see this, my kids to come home to this. I think you’ll find this in anyone you interview. In some way, whatever they are going through, they want it to stop. And sometimes when you dwell on it long enough, you become irrational, you don’t see other solutions to the problem.

So there’s no use in including the risks in the message of suicide prevention?

I think before you tell them, you have to listen very thoroughly to what they are going through. Many, many, many times it’s a cry for help, and the only way to help is by listening and finding what they want help with.
If I was on the phone with you right now and if you were suicidal, I would feel very, very sad the rest of my life if I didn’t do something to help you.
Sometimes telling someone, “Have you thought about your family, have you thought about the risks,” there’s a point, but first, listen. Find out what’s stressing them. If they’re sitting there with an open bottle of pills and a gun in their hand, obviously call 911 right away. Because they have the means or the plan.

The average person, when they hear someone say, “I want to kill myself,” they panic. You want to be compassionate in that instance. Let them vent. Usually they break down and cry.

You do this in person or on the phone?

In person. Not every day.

Can you really help them? Can you fix them?

Yeah, you can. You can get them in touch with someone, with a professional, the suicide prevention Lifeline. You can get a family member on the scene. You might not be able to get in there and fix them, but you can sort of guide them.

You mentioned getting them in touch with a professional, but you said that when you spoke to your psychiatrist, it didn’t work.

In my case, it wasn’t helpful. The professional wasn’t helpful. The professionals who treated me after my attempt were very, very, very helpful. Including the state police who followed my tracks in the snow, the helicopter pilot who reassured me at 4 in the morning on the way to emergency dialysis, the ICU nurse who noticed my lithium level going through the roof, very helpful. Even though in my case, with the first professional, it fell on deaf ears. It’s one thing you never, ever, ever make light of, when someone says, “I want to kill myself,” or even, “I wish it all would stop.” You never, never, never want to take that lightly.

What’s the best approach to get a professional therapist or psychiatrist to focus?

I really don’t know. It would depend on the situation. Possibly get a referral to someone else. Or maybe get a family member who is a more compassionate listener. Or call the Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK.
I went through years and years and years of trying this medication, it wouldn’t work, that medication, it wouldn’t work … “When is this gonna stop?” I don’t know. There’s different ways to approach it.

How was your body after your attempt?

I had very slight kidney damage. The emergency dialysis worked.

How are you doing now?

I’m doing very well right now. I was on disability quite a few years. That’s another story in itself. I’ve switched doctors, changed medications. It’s been the same for about 11 years. The symptoms are very well in remission. I can’t take lithium anymore. I’m not going to tell you the name of the drug because I don’t advertise for drug companies. I’m able to work full-time, help other people. I completed college for an associate’s degree.

In some strange way, did the experience help you?

Absolutely. It’s not only helped me, it’s helped others. It’s given me an opportunity to speak at suicide prevention events in Pennsylvania. It helped me get the word out in several ways. The first key is being compassionate.

How many times have you spoken out about this?

There was a conference in State College, I was a panel speaker. I spoke in the rotunda at Harrisburg for adult suicide and older adult suicide prevention awareness day. I gave a short 20-minute presentation as an older adult. Sometimes I feel 20, sometimes I feel 200. I’m also doing a public service video for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.

It was hard for my children to understand. It took them to get older to understand. I’ve been able to convey to them, “Look, I tried this. Nothing is that bad that you can’t get help for it.” It’s given me communication with my children that most parents don’t have. “Nothing is that bad it can’t be fixed. Call me.” That’s how it’s helped me. I have two children, a son and daughter. It wasn’t the easiest thing because of their age. I had to wait until they could fully understand. My daughter was 11, my son was 9. You don’t sit down and talk about suicide at that age.

It’s been 16 years now and I’ve been doing quite well.

How old are you?

59. There’s an age thing there. Their mother and I had gone through a divorce in 2000.

They were part of the video. It’s given me an experience that I think helps them, helps others as well.

Is it getting easier to talk about this?

(He apologizes, saying he is listening to a football game at the same time and something exciting had happened.) It depends on the individual. Some still shy away from the s-word. I don’t. In order to be a certified peer specialist, I have to publicly say I have a serious mental disorder. Some can’t even do that. I don’t have a problem speaking about it openly. I don’t go around boasting about it, throwing it out there, but when someone is in distress, I tell them I tried to take my life in ’96, and I listen to them. It’s not a big speech. There were 200 people at the conference I spoke at. For me, it’s not a big issue.

I read your blog, read why you’re doing this. People need to stop shying away from the s-word. The s-word shouldn’t throw you into panic. We can’t make this a taboo issue. If someone mentions it, we need to take it very seriously.

Is it healthier to speak out? Or to pretend it didn’t happen?

It’s never healthy to pretend something didn’t happen. God’s using me to help other people. My son lost the leader of his band just a couple of years ago. He got into trouble, got intoxicated, went home and shot himself. He didn’t have a place to go for help. You don’t have a place to go for help if everyone’s keeping it quiet, shoving it under the rug. I sat with my son and his friends and talked about it. If you need to cry, cry.

The number of veterans committing suicide is a growing issue …

The suicide rate for military personnel is higher than it’s ever been. The VA is trying to do stuff with that. I don’t know what we can do in the private sector. Sgt. Brandi has a book out, hold on … It addresses suicide for veterans. I don’t advertise much. Here it is. The title is “The Warrior’s Guide to Insanity, Traumatic Stress and Life.” He gave a very interesting talk. These guys are flying home, within eight hours they are back home. They still have one foot on the battlefield, shooting anything that comes near one of their comrades. One foot in civilization, and one foot still on the battlefield. They can’t cope with it. Some can. It’s very, very difficult. I don’t know what happens in the military when people experience war, some of the atrocities. I do know I just spoke with a man in the doctor’s office, his son used to play little league for me, he took his life. He said, “Davey wasn’t the same after the war.” He shot himself.

So if you’re trying to reach the military, I highly recommend Brandi’s book. He has initiatives to help veterans, to give them time at a military base to adjust.

If strong military types are facing this, isn’t this the time for others to break the silence?

I agree with that. Even before I did the public service video for the Lifeline, I wrote a letter to the editor of the local paper about the Lifeline. If you call and press 1, you will be connected to to someone who specifically works with veterans. I have a bumper sticker on my truck. I have magnets, I have keychains. It  takes the strength of a warrior to call for help, I think it says.
It seems like a whole heck of a lot of people are not caring about our soldiers with PTSD.

Do people ever get angry with you?

My employer encourages me. My employer also tells me, “David, sometimes you’re too blunt. You get more with honey than with vinegar. In the same respect, I’m not afraid to ruffle some feathers.”

There’s a movement called right-to-die …

You don’t have to ask me that question. I asked my therapist. He has helped me so much. I asked him if he would want to be a part of the video project. He said “No, I have different thoughts on people ending their own life.” Do people have the right to die? If they want to, they do. If they have a terminal illness and get medication, they have the choice not to take it. I’m not saying euthanasia is correct when you’re suffering, I had a cousin on dialysis. He had been on it for years and years and years. It was starting to become ineffective. Look, why do we have hospice? He said, “No more dialysis.” We took him to hospice. He died peacefully. Aren’t there directives for do not resuscitate?

I’m not saying when people are in distress they should end their own life, you know. I guess I should say in some instances it’s OK, in others it isn’t. Maybe if toward the end-of-life stage, diagnosed terminal, it might be OK. But if you’re 35 and your wife left you and you have two kids, no.

Now, what’s your question?

That was pretty much my question.

And in some cases it might be a family decision. My daughter works in a nursing home. A lot of her patients don’t leave alive. A lot of families don’t come to visit them. Do they have the right to say, “I don’t want life support?” Absolutely. My mother had a DNR.

What have I not asked you that you expected me to ask?

I don’t know. I didn’t read the interviews, just skimmed. I said, “I’m going to go into this open.” That way you’re getting my opinion, not someone else’s.

Who else are you?

I’m very involved in my church. I play guitar in my spare time, when I have it. I do a little hunting and fishing. I love to spend time with my family. If my son wasn’t working today, I’d be at his house watching football.

I just finished 12 straight days off of work. They teach us that we need to take of ourselves. I’m very fortunate to have the job I do, to have down time.

I’m very involved in prison ministry. It’s very rewarding.

What drew you to that?

Someone just called me one day and asked me to do it. I hemmed and hawed, decided to give it a try. Once you do it, you sort of get hooked, OK? When you see hardened criminals crying in front of each other because God loves them just does something inside you.

What was this football game you were just listening to?

I was listening to the Patriots and Broncos. I’ll get the score later. Tim Tebow has been taking heat for a few weeks. It’s the big game of the week.

The only thing I want to add is, as a mental health advocate I really appreciate you doing this. We can’t shy away from the word suicide when we hear it.

Reading about Marko Cheseto

This is an affecting story about a Kenyan runner who disappeared from his university campus in Alaska and spent days alone in the woods before staggering into a local hotel. His running shoes were frozen to his feet. His feet had to be amputated because of frostbite. The original story, based on a police report, seems to have been taken down from the website of the school’s student newspaper (“Error 404 – Page Not Found”), but the cached version and other reports say Marko Cheseto had been depressed since his cousin and teammate William Ritewiang killed himself earlier this year. The stories say Cheseto was struggling. “He told me that he felt like no one had been able to understand how difficult things had been for him, and that everyone basically just said to hang in there,” the police report said.

Reports say Cheseto went running without a hat or gloves, and he threw his water bottle away. He turned off the trail and ran into the woods. Parts of the police report were redacted. Cheseto told police he passed out, woke up in the snow, found he couldn’t stand and eventually forced himself to his feet. When he made it into the hotel and collapsed, he was surprised to learn it was Wednesday, not Monday.

It doesn’t take much to imagine what might have happened in the woods. What struck me, and apparently has struck many others, was well put by the university’s cross country and track and field coach, Michael Friess. “It is hard to understand depression,” Friess said in news reports. “Yes, he was in the wrong place, he fell down, you could describe it. But in my opinion the strongest aspect is that he got up. He wasn’t found. He returned to us.”

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.

Talking with Enoch Li

A young woman named Enoch Li found me from Beijing. Julie Hersh, the author of “Struck by Living” and a fellow attempt survivor, kindly pointed Enoch my way after they chatted about book projects. Enoch blogs about her recent experiences with depression and is working on a book about them.

I was curious about her name. “The name Enoch comes from the Bible,” she said. “It’s a man in the Old Testament who walked with God for 300 years and then went away. He’s one of the two in the Bible who didn’t experience death. My parents are Christians and thus named me Enoch so that I may walk with God.”

We spoke by e-mail and chat, and the notes remain in their original form.

Let me start with two questions: Who are you? And what happened?

1. Who am I… hmm… in a way, no one in particular, one of those Gen Yers who’ve had all the opportunities possible in my life, not too bad education, top of my basket wherever i was and most people looking at me would consider me one of those “successful young women who has her life together”, with a high paying corporate executive job and all its perks, expat package everywhere, speak a few languages, awesome fiance…. Special in my own little pond as a big fish, but otherwise, too many ponds out there and in the big ocean, i’m just one of the little fish. i dont discount my achievements, but at the same time, it’s not as special as people think they are, if you know what i mean.
more personal data wise, i grew up in Hong Kong and Australia, mostly educated in HK, with a year in Paris. studied International law and international politics in university, with a stint at the International Criminal Court at The Hague which I loved. i love psychology and literature but wasn’t allowed to study them as they weren’t very “useful” subjects, as my teachers and Tiger mum deemed them. i started working in the finance industry as an international executive straight out of under grad…. worked in London, Paris, Tokyo and now Beijing
hmmm… all I can think of right now, let me know if you want more details
2. what happened
i’m not sure. it feels as if over night i went from a confident me to someone who had no motivation and no interest in life whatsoever
but in retrospect, it’s been building up. i think i was stressed out and burnt out. i always thought my dream was to get a good paying job and rise up the corporate ladder and i’ll be happy. i was happy in my job, and i enjoyed it. i had good bosses and great opportunities. i did well and always rated top every year.
so i thought i had it all too
and didn’t really pay attention to my body. i thought i was invincible, esp in my mid 20s
after moving to Beijing mid 2009, one weekend i got an extremely bad migraine, and I’ve never had one before. it was excrutiating. i threw up, couldn’t stand lights or sound, was dizzy
it kept coming back. and i went to every single doctor possible (after some delays too because I dont like seeing doctors, somehow thinking i’m stronger than that), did my xrays MRIs etc and nothing was wrong with my physically, except that my blood vessels etc were too expanded in my head and neck, spine area, which caused the migraines, doctors think
and their diagnosis boiled down to stress as the main cause
i couldn’t really accept i was stressed, and thought i could cope. i took holidays, went to the spa etc. eventually my GP said i have to go see a psychologist
i delayed that too till my boyfriend (now fiance) decided it was too much and i had to go see one. i did see one, but i didn’t like her. so i didn’t return
it dragged on. i kept goign to work till it was impossible for me to get up from my migraines. i was taking advil everyday in the afternoon when migraines started, and struggled to concentrate at meetings, pretending everything was ok
eventually GP said i had to take 1 month off work
one day i had a dream / or daydreamed and isualized my self drowning myself in my bath tub. i decided something was wrong, and i went to see another psychologist my GP recommended
i came out of the shrink’s office and he said i had major depression
i had no idea what that meant. and i felt so ashamed of it
eventually, 1 month off work became another month and then a whole 6 months as my condition worsened. i’ve been on sick leave since jan 2010
i’m trying to leave my company now
between dec 09 and first few months of 2010, i think i tried to kill myself 3-4 times. each time my boyfriend caught me. i tried to jump out the window of my apartment. i sat on the sill and my bf dragged me back, just n time as he arrived home
another time was OD on sleeping pills and my painkillers
another time i tried to cut my wrist but that didn’t work and i was really weak and just fainted. i lost about 15-20 kgs in the midst of depression, not eating anything
i even googled the best way to kill myself so i don’t die grossed out. i read your blog post recently about the article which asked people to think carefully before killing themselves. i kind of did that too and analyszed how best to die. i didn’t want to jump and then end up alive but paralysed rest of my life, or end up having liver or stomach problems from pills
i decided jumping off from 30th floor or above was guaranteed success…
here’s a start….
We migrated to chat:
and then what happened?
 Enoch:  nothing much. i sat at home all day. esp during the winter months. i had no interst in the DVDs i had bought before to watch
eventually the shrink started cognitive behaviour therapy with me
that might have helped eventually to get me out of the rut of thinking
but for the longest time i was very ashamed of being depressed and havig tried to kill myself
i didn’t tell anyone save my boyfriend and my best friend from hk
i hid from everyone
went off the social radar
stopped taking care of myself
and wondering why i was depressed. what did i do wrong. a lot of anger and negative emotions came out. i would cry uncontrollably. i’d flip from feeling really lucky and blessed to be alive, to whats the point of it all
i saw no meaning in what i did. i didn’t like my job anymore, smiling at clients, and even though i got promoted, i was so tired of it
somehow though, i seem to walk out of the major depression after about 8 or 9 months… i was taking antidepressants too all along. and was embarassed of that too, as if i can’t control myself
but towards end of 2010, my mood became more stable i think. and also after i started my blog in sep 10, and writing down all my thoughts, i seem to be able to get a grip better and control my thoughts, and also confront a lot of suprressed issues with growing up, having a Tiger Mum
i tapered off anti depressants end of 2010, but still recovering. doctors still dont think i’m read for work yet. as i’ve developed anxiety attacks from this whole thing
feels like i’m stuck under snow 50 ft down, and can’t move and can’t breathe sometimes, want to run away but can’t
one day i decided, ok i need to take care of my health. so i started chinese medicine after anti depressants to find a “balance”. i started taking calligraphy classes and being a bit more zen. a bit of exercise here and there when i can muster up energy
 me:  am reading
 Enoch:  ok
 me:  you say “i decided jumping off from 30th floor or above was guaranteed success…”
was that when your boyfriend dragged you away?
or is that another attempt?
 Enoch:  that was another attempt. i live on 6th floor, so first time was 6/f, and i wasn’t “analyzing” suicide so much
 Enoch:  the second time i happened to be on my friend’s open balcony on 25th floor, and decided it was high enough. this was after my “analysis”. i was at my friend’s place with my boyfriend just chilling, and trying to keep a bit of social contact. also this friend dragged me out of my apartment, said i needed some “fresh air”. so i went to his house. i remember hiding under my jacket and hoodie so no one would see me. they were inside, i was outside, i climbed up on the chair and peeked over
boyfriend caught me
i dont know if i woud have jumped or not really, had bf not interrupted my thought
i think i was more like, “i’m going to see if this works” instead of “i’m jumping now”
 Enoch:  oh i remember, my best friend thought something was wrong when i emailed her my will and details of bank accounts back in nov /dec 09, and to my bf too. and said it’s just for their recrods. that’s when my bf really dragged me to see the second shrink
 me:  how are you doing now? how comfortable is it to talk about this now? is it over?
 Enoch:  i’m much better now. i’m more active so to speak. migraines still trouble me. and i developed this thing called Meniere’s disease, which is a middle ear problem. ENT specialist thinks its from the migraines. i get ringing in my ears and feel dizzy and can just throw up out of nowhere on even a normal day
but i’m more opened about my experience now. i’m totally comfortable talking about it
in fact, i’ve noticed that people seem less comfortable hearing about it if i just casually bring it up in conversation that yes i’ve had major depression and “in remission” now
i dont think its over tho
i fluctuate still a lot
even lat night i was in one of those “life sucks and i’m really tired of trying” moods
but i’m more aware of them and better at distracting myself from my suicide ideations
my shrink is working on them with me
 Enoch:  as to why i want to die. he thinks the suicide thoughts now are not a result of my depression as last year was. but almost an escape for me becasue i dont know where my life is going yet. and i’ve kind of lost ability to be happy or passionate about something. for instance, i enjoy immensely my calligraphy classes, and in the moment, i feel “happy”. but once i walk out of my teacher’s home, i feel like, “oh, then what?” it’s not sustainable
also another thing i struggle with is hallucinations. i see a man in the corner in dark cape every now and then and he just watches me
i think i know it’s in my head
but when i see him i freak out
 me:  i’m not familiar with hallucinations, but perhaps your therapist is?
why are people less comfortable with you talking about depression?
 me:  i’m always curious how people respond and why … and why people either choose to talk openly or keep quiet about it
 Enoch:  i used to have (well, still do, but less frequent) really bad nightmares, waking up screaming in the middle of the night 4 or 5 times, scared someone was trying to kill me or eat me. a monster or something. or my bears (a collection of Gund snuffles) were leaving me and dont love me anymore. apparentl, afterwards my shrink said those were first symptoms of delusions and hallucinations. and he talked me through my dreams to help me dispel some fears
so i didn’t have to take meds for that
i’m not sure why some people are less comfortable. it’s more just in the last 6 months i started talking about it more. not as in, every time i meet someone i tell them. but if it comes up why i’m not working now and why i’m trying to leave the bank
i’ve noticed it more with guys though. they usually dont know how to respond, or look away, or if by email, they just dont reply
girls seem to be more sympathetic. and a lot of my friends i’ve found out afterwards, also suffered from similar symptoms, though no one i know have been so serious as me. except one friend, who did in fact succeed in ending her life in february this year
i guess people don’t understand it
it’s not like a common cold, where people can easily respnod and say “drink more water”
they probably dont know what to tell me to do or how to help, so avoid al together
those who know how it feels are more encouraging. usually they say, “i’m sorry, i’ve ben there, i know how it feels”
those who dont hae the experience try to be sympathetic
or encouraging
i i didn’t want to talk about it at first because i was ashamed i was “weak”
but as i confronted my own thoughts, esp via my writing, i decided tehre’s nothing weak about it
its a state i’m in
and thats just too bad
but it’s become part of me now. and i’m learning to embrace it as part of me
so i decided if i talked more openly, it’d help me confront the issues
 Enoch:  and then people started to respond. and said they feel a lot of the feelings and thoughts they read on my blog
at first blog was more just my friends reading it
now as i’m more vocal also on other blogs, i’m getting more traffic too
so the more people responded the more i thought, ok, a lot of us actually feel the same or go through same struggles, but no one ever wantst to talk about it
so i will
i’m trying to write a book as well about my experience
working on a proposal
to target Gen Y executives like me
i think we all have some hidden fear inside, or things we are not happy about and we spend too much energy putting up this front and happy face in front of people
 me:  you’ve mentioned Gen Y a couple of times. is it easier for younger people to talk about this? or are there other factors that make you more comfortable talking openly (international background, education, work status)?
and then i wonder what your family thinks about all of this
 Enoch:  i think the interntional background helps a lot. i guess you’ve been in china and probably know how taboo mental health is
so i guess for those who’ve not had the opportunity to see things from international perspectives, it’s harder to break through the taboo
i think younger people also more inclined to talk about it. mental health is more accepted these days and i think our generation are those who like to induce change in society. so i think lots of us want to be more vocal
work status i think actually might make people less inclinced to talk about it. many professionals esp avoid it. it could affect the “climb” up the corporate ladder. i read somewhere that the CEO fo Lloyds or some UK bank admitted to having depression only after he retired because he was worried he’d have to leave his job
funny how work is the crux of our lives sometimes
my family, hmm… my younger sis is sympathetic. she probably doesn’t really get it. she’s a go getter like me. and an investment banker. so she’s more the invincible me i used to be a few years back
and she said “i will NOT end up like you” despite her taking her life to even more extreme in terms of stress. i have no comment. we all live our own lives
my dad and i dont talk much. i know he’s worried, he just tells me to take car of myself whenever i see him
my mum used to be “why are you depressed?” as if accusing me of doing something wrong again
and she kept askng me when i will look for a new job
i think shes’s more worried that i dont have money to take care of her than about my situation or what i want to do
but after a year or so, i think she’s mellowed down a bit
i never told her i was depressed or suicidal. but i think she can guess
my best friend in hk told her duing end 2009 to “stop bothering me and pushing me”
dont know. we never had a in depth discussion with my family
 me:  your sister’s comment: “i will NOT end up like you” … where does she think you’ve ended up?
does she think you can’t come back (or go on) from this?
 Enoch:  she thinks i’m messed up, and i think she means she wont end up trying to kill herself or stressed out
i dont really know what she thinks. we dont talk so much in depth
 me:  ok
what would you like to accomplish with your book?
 Enoch:  my book is going to be narrative non fiction, not a self help
i want to tell my story blatantly and honestly
and be opened with the experience
so people can draw some inspiration from it, and catch themselves before it is “too late”
ie
too stressed out or unhappy about life
honestly, is ometimes still dont know why i need to be alive
but whilst i am,
then i hope others will also find some reasont o stay alive
so if all it takes is for me to tell them, “you are not alone”, then thats what i’ll do with my book
secondly, my book is my own confrontation of my own issues, with a Tiger Mum, my upbringing, religion, recovery methods, thoughts etc… so through it, i hope to give myself peace of mind
and as a new start to a new stage of my life
but i’m waiting for my company to release me contractually now
and hopefully in the near future i can start looking for agents and publishers, because now i guess it’s still sensitive. i’ve finishd the book proposal and now working on a few chapters to show to agents
also, i want to start writing for newspapers / magazines about my experience and thoughts. i feel that sometimes, mental health issues is too categorical in psychology or health magazines
but it affects everyonw, and so i want to give a dailly perspective of it, in just any newspaper /mag people could read,
 me:  let me go back a bit now
 me:  you’re clearly bright, and you googled the best way to kill yourself? how trustworthy did you think what you were finding was?
and how did you consider the risks, if at all?
 Enoch:  well. i think some were trustworthy in the sense that it’s almost common sense, or bits and pieces from studying in scool
such as fallign objects from height, with its weight and velocity, can get broken. higher it is, higher velocity, higher impact and momentum etc
so these were more common sense
 Enoch:  gaspipes and chemicals and poisons i read about too. i dont have a car, and most poisons just too painful a death. i didn’t really research it. i just think, common sense, something bad goes into your system, will take a while to react. food poisoning experience and being on an IV drip is bad enough, i dont want a painful death. and i’ve been having too many IV drips from fainting in the alst year
i wanted a clean and quick death
i didn’t want to be a burden to anyone, like that article on your post, i dont want anyone cleaning up my brains so to speak
and the risk is that if i didn’t die and i was literally half dead, that’d be worse, esp for those taking care of me as a vegetable or something
you hear these stories of people breaking their neck from skiing or accidents, and i know if i jumped out of a building and ended up like that, i could be in coma for hte next 30 years. worse
i didn’t research it over one day. i read a bit on the internet here and there. when i was in worst state of depression. i had no motivation for anything. i didn’t even have energy to kill myself. it happened as i was sliding into it, and as i was slowly recovering
my shrink also says, the highest risk of suicide for a person suffering from depression is when they are slowly recovering, at that slight uphill climb, because thats when they have energy and motivation to think more, and think of ways to kill themselves, and also when thoughts are still very unstable and negative
i’m quite a perfectionist. and even in dying iwas trying to find a perfect way. sometimes i just can’t believe myself
 me:  even knowing the risks, or imagining them, why take them anyway? why aren’t those thoughts enough of a deterrent? why do people still it, as though they simply have to do something?
(that’s what i can’t figure out. it’s a heck of a way to challenge oneself)
 Enoch:  my humble opinion, is that, when someone tries to kill themselves, even if all these risks and analyses are at the back of our minds, we dont necessarily remmeber them when we are on the verge of pulling the trigger
i think a lot of suicides that are successful are impulsive
i read about that specifically for rural women in china
they dont plan it
and i think it’s applicable to a lot of cases
i just have all these risks and analyses in my head
and when one dayi decide to kil lmyself, i just use the best way and less risky way thats already in my head
not all suicides are linked to depression, and i can’t speak for those
but i guess when people are majorly depressed, thoughts of risks are nothing compared to the hopelessness we feel
so we still do it
 me:  so telling people that nothing is foolproof, they could end up incredibly messed up, etc., that wouldn’t stop them … ?
 Enoch:  it wouldn’t stop me
if i was determined to die
 me:  then i have a different question
 Enoch:  i think i wasn’t too determined in the end. just was a way out for me
 me:  this still isn’t the easiest topic to talk about. will that change, and how? will there ever be a day when people ‘come out’ about their suicidal experiences?
 Enoch:  just on a side note, talking to you giving me an inspiration for a post on my blog :)
 me:  aha. happy to help.
but the question above your last comment, what do you think? will it ever be that comfortable (or open) a topic? an identifier?
 Enoch:  it might take 10 or 20 year
years
my shrink said, in the “west”, it’s taken about 10 years for people to be comfortable with depression
suicides still not
because it’s such a thing of shame for the family and culture
as if, it’s equated to weakness
and people tell you to “snap out of it”. god how many people have said to me “don’t think like that”
so annoying when they say that
and because i think people shove it under the carpet, and they dont have an alternative or response to someone saying “i just tried to kill myself”
they avoid it
no one tries to understand why we tried to kill ourselves
and at the same time, it’s hard to ask someone to imagine what it feels like depressed or not being in control of our ownt houghts and emotions
i hope it will eventually be a comfortable thing
and i think your project helps a lot on this and its a good initiative
i think many people want to talk about it. but have no platform
to
and too afraid of what others would think
one thing coming out of my depression, is that i’ve placed too much emphasis on what others think of me in the past, and i’ve learnt, well, if i’m not myself because i need to put up an image, that’s why i was unhappy
so i just need to do what i wat, say whati want
and stop worrying about my image
and thats why i think i might be more opened than others to talk abt it
and somehow, i’m not worried i wont find a job if i needed to. my CV is polished enough. and i’m not as worried as some of my friends are that being sick on the records will mean i can’t find as good a job in the future
plus ‘m not looking for one in the medium term, so will worry about that later
 me:  what are you doing next, then, aside from the book? and apparently marriage?
 Enoch:  nothing. i’m learning to do nothing. been doing too much at the same time before. i’m learning to slow down
but still, nothing means, i’m working on my health. via exercise, calligraphy practice, reading, writing, cooking, just indulging in hobbies
and the next step is to rediscover my passions, so that whatever i do next, is what i actually love doing….