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.

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