National conference: ‘Where is everybody?’

I’m a shy public speaker, but today I joined two other suicide attempt survivors in speaking at the national conference of the American Association of Suicidology. Last year was the first time in the 44 years of the conference that a plenary, or full, session was devoted to the issue of attempt survivors, and one person, CW Tillman, was up there in front of hundreds of researchers and crisis workers speaking for all of us. Today’s smaller-scale talk included CW, myself and Heidi Bryan. Also with us was Stephanie Weber, who has been a pioneer in creating a support group for attempt survivors in the Chicago area.

I plan to post information from the conference on an attempt survivors’ support group in Arizona, as well as a new respite home in New Mexico for people struggling with thoughts of suicide. Another couple of interviews with attempt survivors are on the way, too. First, I’d like to share what I read at today’s session as an introduction. I had worried that people in the audience would be angry or offended by some of it, but the entire presentation went well:

I’m happy to be speaking to you today. My latest suicide attempt was a year ago. I was working in China as a reporter, and I abruptly resigned. I hiked to an abandoned village outside Beijing, took sleeping pills with a bottle of wine, lay on the ground and hoped to freeze to death in my sleep. I didn’t.

I want to be direct with you. I romanticized my attempt. And it felt good to have the attention afterwards, because I had been so alone. All of this is selfish, and I don’t know whether I’ve changed. But I’m not feeling suicidal now, and I’m back at work.

I’m also being far more open about suicide this time. I want to tell you about some of the things that have really surprised me.

– First is the silence. Where is everybody? And where are the people at this conference? How many people are drawn to working in the mental health field because of personal experience? If there’s any safe environment where people can speak openly, shouldn’t it be here? I’ve been interviewing other suicide attempt survivors for a blog I write called Talking About Suicide. Finding them hasn’t been easy. More than one has told me that people used to talk in whispers about cancer. About cancer! Look how far we’ve come. And homosexuality, more whispers. Look at it now. When will it be suicide’s turn? When can we come out? After my attempt, it seemed natural to join a support group with other attempt survivors. But New York City doesn’t have one. The number of such groups in the U.S. can be counted on one hand. That’s incredible.

– Second is the danger of suicide attempts. I have spoken to people who have shot themselves, who have jumped from buildings, who are now in wheelchairs. I have found no good research on people with permanent injury from suicide attempts. Suicide is risky all around. Desperate people are acting on poor information from anonymous websites. People who want to kill themselves end up wrecking their bodies and minds. People who don’t want to kill themselves, who want to hurt themselves instead, are dying by mistake. Suicide attempts are guesswork. Since we don’t dare talk about suicide methods, are we OK letting people take their chances? Are we sure there isn’t an intelligent way to talk about the risks involved?

– Finally, and I don’t think you’ll like this, is the fear of thinking outside suicide prevention, of understanding that after a certain age or circumstance some adults _ I stress, adults _ truly see no real life ahead and want to die. I see no bridge between the people who want to prevent suicides and the people who want to ensure a person’s death with dignity _ but even then only if they have a terminal condition. Life is a continuum, and the thinking about suicide should be one as well. What about people in middle age who can no longer be consoled with the phrase “You have your whole life ahead of you”? What about the aging and elderly who don’t want to lose their mental sharpness or their independence? What if they have made the well-thought-out decision to end their lives on their terms? So much of the horror of suicide for the person involved is the utter loneliness of the decision. And for the other people around that person, it’s the nasty surprise. All because we don’t dare approach the subject except to reflexively say, “Don’t do it.” Some people may see that response as an expression of love and support. Others may see it as a rejection and an insult to their intelligence. We, even at this conference, are nowhere close to being comfortable with the topic of suicide. If we were, we wouldn’t panic so much and say so little.

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