Talking with Cathy Read-Wilson

How many people working on crisis lines have had their own experience with suicide? Cathy Read-Wilson’s suicide attempt came after she had started volunteering with one. She found that the organization didn’t panic, later hired her and has worked with her ever since.

Cathy explains the system, including how it keeps her supervisor informed when she has a crisis while keeping the record of the crisis relatively anonymous. She’s also free to mention her experience to callers. “I have had callers happy they had a person on the other end of the line who knew what they were talking about,” she says. “And they know I’m not calling 911 on them, because I know that sucks. But I tell them that if I need to, I will.”

She decided to speak out about her experience because she found it hard to find resources for attempt survivors, and she came across Yvonne Bergmans‘ group in Toronto.

Who are you?

I’m a mother of three kids, ages 22, 19 and 15. I live in a small town, fairly small, Elmira, Ontario. I grew up here. I went off to university in Hamilton, ended up coming back, getting married, raising a family. I’ve done all sorts of work in the meantime, working in a newspaper setting, washing windows, doing anything I could, until recently, I decided to move to a profession that I’m doing now, counseling.

What kind of counseling?

What I’ve been doing part time is working on a crisis phone line. A lot of work is either distress or crisis intervention. It could mean just listening to people as they needto vent, or helping keep them from grabbing a drink when they’ve been clean for a while. I’m moving into more front-line work. I’m working on the AIDS committee for Cambridge-Kitchener-Waterloo area. I’m working on the education end of things, reducing stigma.

In your work for crisis lines, did you disclose your own experience?

It makes it very easy for me to work with individuals. In some ways, it’s more easy to work with a suicidal person than a co-worker. I would disclose depending onthe situation. It’s supposed to be about the caller, but I found that sharing a bit about my experience has benefited. I have had callers happy they had a person on the other end of the line who knew what they were talking about. And they know I’m not calling 911 on them, because I know that sucks. But I tell them that if I need to, I will.

But did you tell the crisis line organizers when you joined them?

Actually, my attempt was while working with them. My first two attempts, I call them pseudo-attempts, were 10, 15 years ago. I started volunteering three, three and half years ago. I literally had quit my job as a part-time custodian, getting more into social services. What I could share then was my struggle at times with depression, how I ended up being on sick leave because of mental health, how I could relate to bereavement, PTSD, the kind of stuff relevant then. Literally two years ago, I actually had my major attempt. And so it was ultimately only since then that I disclose my attempt. I mean, I use my own services now.

You didn’t know about them before?

When I went through other struggles, I had no idea that a phone line existed. Now, actually within the last six months, I’ve phoned coworkers late at night. There’s a very political way of the organization in working with it, no backlash. I’m very fortunate. They have full respect for the fact that I am using it, really.

How does it work?

If I phone in, coworkers will make note of the call but make it at an anonymous level. And that way, volunteers can’t necessarily see it. If I choose, they could put my name in. My coworkers actually have a copy of my crisis plan right by their desk. I can access the schedule, so I know who I’m going to be talking to. It’s kept anonymous when it’s put in the computer. My supervisor is notified, though. So she is aware. If there’s any contact with the mobile crisis team, it’s kept relatively anonymous. The paper trail gets folded up, put in an envelope and given to the supervisor’s superior. So there’s a record, but nothing no one else needs to know about.

How does it feel coming in to work afterward?

I could show up the next morning at work, yeah. I’ve only used it a few times. At first, it was somewhat awkward. My first person on my crisis plan is my supervisor. So she knew prior. It just happened that the mobile crisis person that morning was also the union rep. He was actually the one, he saw us talking, came in, explained to me the confidentiality stuff. I had no idea. The call had to be made, I didn’t know how it would be processed. But knowing now, I’m OK with that. I’ve got a great support system. And I’m not the only one who used the services. We provide a service for others in need, and we should be able to offer it to our own employees.

Is this a private organization, or a governmental one?

It’s the Canadian Mental Health Association. Out of the Grand River branch. Which may not be standard throughout Canada.

(I ask about the difference in stigma around suicide in Canada and the U.S.)

There is stigma. I had been looking for work, with resumes out there like crazy. I know it’s a tough market. But I’m so open, I’ve been in newspapers, on TV, that a part of me wonders _ it also shows up on my police check _ to what extent I was not getting a job because of my openness about my suicide attempt. I don’t know. I speculate it might be some there. For the most part, I get a positive response. I don’t know what they’re saying behind my back. I guess I don’t really care.

How did it come about, your openness?

My attempt was July 7, 2010. I was in the middle of my master’s course. I went in on a Wednesday to the hospital, and I was able to get myself into crisis respite on Monday. I did stuff I wouldn’t recommend to clients to get through the system. Once I got there, I started Googling “suicide survivors.” Everything that started coming up was those bereaved by suicide, and I got rather ticked off at that. No, I’m a survivor, too. I’m not going to keep quiet about it. I was very open with my kids, my family. There was only so much I could hide already. With my kids, I had a counseling session, and the counselor asked, “How do you want me to do this?” I said to right out suicide, call it exactly the way it is. It does no one good to sweeten it up, to make false comments. As far as coming out to the public, it was a year later. I was open with close friends, within my work environment. I didn’t not talk about it. I’m actually a shit instigator: “What did you do this weekend?” “I attempted suicide.” The deer in the headlights response. The humor gets us through. But I was determined something needed to be done. On suicide awareness day, I had my own event in Elmira. Basically there was a newspaper article for all of Elmira to read about my attempt, like coming out of the closet, so to speak. The interesting thing is, my parents live in town and people would go to them before talking with me, comment how brave I was, blah blah blah. Now more people come up to me still. They actually bring it up in conversation. I always thank them.

They never go over the line? Is there no line?

I’m open to anything. I always have the right to not answer. I’ve been asked “Why,” “How could you possibly feel that low,” “What about your children,” if I ever got angry at God, so a more religious component. No, I’ll answer whatever. The most hurtful comment came from someone I knew fairly well, it had to do with it referred to as a selfish thing to do. That one hurt. But for the most part, no. And if I’m in the right frame of mind, if someone asks if I’m doing it for the attention, really, none of us do it for attention, right? You have to be in a pretty deep hole. If I’m not in the right frame of mind, I take it personally.

If you’re in the right frame of mind, what would you say?

I would say it’s more a cry for help than a cry for attention. The words are not there. You don’t have the words to speak for yourself. I’ve been trained, I know intervention, but if I’m in crisis tomorrow, will I know how to pull that stuff out of a hat? Not necessarily.

About the comment on being selfish, did you have any response?

I never did. It was someone I had greatly respected growing up. I just put it in the back of my mind. Sometimes you say things in the moment you don’t necessarily mean. And you know, if I were to see him now, I probably would say something to that effect. but at the time, I didn’t know what to say.

Is there any downside to being open?

Yeah. It’s the triggers. And I have to really be careful I’m not overdoing it in my suicide prevention promotion stuff. I suffer from emotional hangovers, so I can be go, go, go, go for a while but then pay for it after the fact. I slide pretty quickly. But do I ever regret my reason for sliding? No. And if I slide so far I have another attempt, would I regret it? No. Because I still would have accomplished stuff prior to it.

Is there any risk in you talking with me? You know there is the common concern about attempt survivors talking with each other about it.

That’s such a myth. The best group I ever sat in on was Yvonne Bergmans‘, sitting in as a peer. and being able to sit in on a room of fascinating, creative, intelligent individuals and hear their struggle, like yours. No, I still keep in contact. Our conversation is generally, “How can we continue to talk more about it so it becomes less of a concern and so more people reach out and get help?” There are times _ I was at my therapist’s yesterday, I was literally given the choice of hospital, respite or otherwise, and that was a little over 24 hours ago. I never know what will be triggered, to get to that certain point. I’m sure she’d cringe at a comment where I’d be willing to risk my life literally by talking about it, but she knows me well enough. I’m determined enough to talk about it. And, by the way, I didn’t end up in respite or the hospital.

How did you manage that? 24 hours?

Well, resiliency. I guess I just have a driven mindset. Ultimately, I think those with high ideation and behavior, they don’t really want to die of suicide, it’s in the moment, “I can’t take it anymore,” right? So I’m fortunate with the resources that I have. I have a crisis plan I’ve used regularly in the last few years. I put people on there specifically I know I can’t bullshit. So I hate them in the moment and would like them to go away. I know there’s a backlash on me right there because they’ll be reading this!

How do we make people more comfortable with the topic?

Starting the conversation. Every opportunity we have. The people I talk with from the group, my youngest is 15, their kids are a little younger. But we all believe in talking about it, going into the school system. It’s something we would like to do. Opening it up to youth groups. Any opportunity we have where we can share our story in a conversational kind of way, right? Because we could talk and talk and talk, but once you talk for a little while, people start to get curious and ask questions, and it becomes more of a conversation, and right there it just opened the door for them to be with a peer somewhere down the road who sends out a red flag, “I wish I were dead,” that one meeting could turn into saving a life down the road. That individual will be comfortable enough to ask, “Are you thinking of suicide?” Saying the word is the hardest, right? When I was in training for the crisis line, I learned how to say the word directly and not, “Are you thinking of hurting yourself?” Having them say the word “suicide,” they’re using it and they’re not going to get a negative reaction. There’s a few of us, we’re all to the point where we would much rather open up and try to share our stories than try to keep closed about it.

Is there anyone, any organization, leaning in and saying, “Talk, but tell it this way?”

I’ve never had anyone tell it to me, but maybe they did and I chose not to hear it. You know, one of the first things Yvonne says in the group is, she basically says the whole group process is a learning process. You are the experts, I am also a co-learner. So ultimately I have that dual hat, which helps. I spoke with a group of individuals, medical students. I was there because of my mental health and suicide attempts, but even in that context, it was interesting. There was no sort of guidelines, “You shouldn’t say this to medical students,” everything was up front. I can always learn from someone else. I like that expert stuff.

These are relatively smaller-scale efforts. What about talking on a bigger scale, through the media and such?

Maybe down the road? Maybe open the door to work organizations, a fascinating place to have maybe a day where you have someone come in and talk about it. No one is immune to suicide. I would say nine out of 10 people, if not 10 out of 10 people I’ve spoken to or in front of, have a story to share. The more we talk, the more the word will hopefully get out. I’d love to say one day I’ll be a big international speaker inspiring people’s lives, right? Yeah, grandiose and ideal.

I wonder if talking on a larger scale would change the response.

The domino effect, right? I go out and speak often with Tana Nash. She lost her sister and grandmother to suicide. Oftentimes we get together. If I had not had my attempt, I would not have met her, had those connections. I would not have met Yvonne. Not that I recommend that; I always put that in parentheses. Where was I going with that? Oh, I go out with Tana, and in going out with her, I recognize there may be 15 people, 50 people in the audience. The benefit of the smaller group we’ve seen is, there’s more disclosure in that group because of the comfort level. Whereas in group of, like, 150, you might have disclosure, but after and one on one. So ultimately, even if there’s just one person I’m talking to, I kind of look at it from that perspective. You’ve gotta start somewhere. But that’s OK. But we’re doing a television series, going for filming tomorrow. The local cable station is doing a series, “Mind Matters.” Canada AM had a big special on suicide. the potential is out there, right?

What about the people whose attempts are so quick, so impulsive, that there’s not much time to reach them when they think they’d need it?

How to get to them? First of all, they’re in the moment and don’t necessarily … You hear a lot about having plans, leaving notes and stuff. But if you look at the statistics, not many leave notes. It’s all a very individual thing. I guess you’ve just got to hope. We’re not talking about how we’ve tried it. I don’t even get into my means. I might sort of vaguely dance about it. That’s one of the rules in the group. We don’t talk about our means. Just the thoughts, how to control and work with those. The crisis plan, I’m a firm believer in that. In mine, I’m very open. For instance, in starting this job next week, I might give them a copy of my plan, though I don’t have to have it. I mentioned it in my interview with them. The more I mention it, the better chance I have at my own survival. right? We don’t do the group with the expectation that we’re going to come out without the thoughts or behavior. Even when you’re feeling good for a while, you have the “OK, it will never come back again,” but when it does, you just have to accept and contain it so not to have those spontaneous moments. I don’t ever expect it to be easy. And maybe I make it sound easy, and I had someone in the hospital who said, “How do you do it?” Another thing is, don’t compare yourself to that person and how you think they’re doing. She ended up dying by suicide. It was very difficult for me. We each have our own stuff. I never know when will be spontaneous or last minute. I don’t know. I hope I’ll have the right frame of mind to text. I’m big on texting. It was an email that saved my life. You just have to use the tools you have.

How did an e-mail save your life?

I sent out about 22 e-mails. I did not get up with the intention. I had major back pain and started trying to treat it. A combo of pills and alcohol. I knew I wasn’t in a good head space, I knew where I was going. So I sent out very vague messages. The last one I sent to two specific individuals. I found a poem online that said what I was doing, what my intention was. It was not “I love you, blah blah,” basically, “This is were I’m at, what I’m doing.” I sent one to my counselor and the other to someone at work. My counselor read it, where she never ever reads e-mails before going out to supper, but she read it that night. She didn’t second-guess it. She phoned me on my cell. I had charged my cell, done the laundry. I was literally playing the Russian roulette. If there was no intervention, it’s all right, I’ve got everything done. I was not willing to disclose where I was. I hung up on her. She made calls to find out where I was. She talked to my daughter. Somewhere in there I had texted a friend, who had already phoned my daughter to say something was wrong because I had spelled a word wrong in my text. My daughter and friends already were trying to find me. My therapist ended up phoning me back, tried again to use the kid card, saying my daughter was in tears. But it was not working. She hung up on me, called 911. I answered again, and the number showed up unknown. I thought it was her, but it was 911. A number of years ago, I did a 911 course. What saved me at that point was analyzing the job she was doing. I started thinking, “North, south, east, west” and told her how to get there. She kept me conscious until they got there. The therapist told me there was nothing short of miraculous that they found me

Is there any sort of pride in this? To look back over it all for the details?

It makes it scarier, to go back and find what went wrong. To others, it would be what I did right. But if I get determined again, I know what not to do to get that much closer.

Why?

I wish I could answer that. I think it’s just part of my way of thinking. It’s just a mindset the mind goes into. And it’s hard to draw it out, it’s hard to pull out of it. But at the base of it is the hopelessness and the wanting to end the pain.

Do others create crisis plans around you?

I’m sure they make phone calls behind my back. I set myself up, right? But I also have to appreciate that side of it, too. As much as I might be ticked off at my therapist in the moment, I’m grateful in the end. When i was house-sitting at my parents’, I had a neighbor call my cousin out of concern because I hadn’t taken in the recycle bin. To make sure he called, to make sure I was OK, right? I could look at it as the busybody neighbor, or I could look at it as they were concerned, wanting to make sure I was OK. There’s always two sides.

How are your children?

My youngest is very much my hawkeye. He was the one to check on me afterwards: “Mom, do I have to worry tonight?” He’ll be going out the door: “What are you doing today? So you’ll call me if you go out?” “I’ll leave a note.” “No, so you’ll call? I know they worry at times. My sister is trying like anything to understand, because she never experienced depression. Again, I don’t mind people asking, I don’t mind the conversation. With this intervention stuff, the people I don’t want to see me at my worst are my closest family, because I don’t want to scare them. Like the onion, layers of support. As I get to the external edge, the more and more in crisis, I’m gonna look more to the professionals then. I am one of these professionals. I know it will take a certain type of intervention to get through to me. Besides, I have certain people on that outside edge I can make comments to, and it’s OK. It’s a friend as well as a professional thing.

(I ask about professionals who have their own experiences with suicide attempts and whether they should be more open about them.)

I’m sure there’s lots out there. In some cases, unfortunately, their work environment is not so open to it, right? They’ve got a lot to learn in the workforce to deal with someone with mental health issues. A good chunk in the helping profession, that’s probably why we’re in it, right? So depending on whether it’s domestic violence or whatever,  there’s a clumping of individuals that’s where their specialty kind of lies. There’s an extent of disclosure. But when it comes to suicide, you probably wouldn’t get a lot as open. But there are. Because I’ve talked to individuals who’ve had suicide attempts, but even their co-workers may not know. In a sense, I wish medical professionals had more of that component to it, the lived experience. I wonder whether it’s not lacking a little bit because it’s so clinical. That’s why it was nice to talk to those medical students. It was not just me that day, there were people with chronic illness. They were learning what it’s like to live in those shoes.

(She asks me why I decided to be open about this subject, and I told her. I said it could be exhausting to try to hide it.)

Exactly, it’s exhausting to try to hide it. And it’s exhaustion that drives us to do it. My first attempt, no one knew it was an attempt. The second one, my one friend knew, she got me to go to the doctor and get antidepressants. But no one knew. At _ how old am I? _ at 47 years of age, my family only then found out, the depression, the thoughts I’d been living with since I was a teenager, if not earlier.

And? How did you approach it? How did they take it?

Even when I weaseled my way out of the hospital, I thought it would be fairly easy. I’m surprised at how draining an effect it was. It was a lot tougher than anticipated. My mother insisted on a group session when she found out I took my husband and kids in. I hear a lot of the time that “I don’t have support, I don’t have this, that.” I recognize how fortunate I am, but in retrospect, I did not have that support when I was hiding it. I was the happy-go-lucky citizen of Elmira, a member of the theater company, you name it. When I had the event at my church, they just couldn’t believe this was the same person who was Sunday school coordinator for four years, always being bubbly and bouncy.

Can you tell now, looking at people, that they have their own experiences and may be trying to hide it?

I never really thought about it, I guess it would depend on the conversation. Honestly, the poem I sent out as a help message, the individual who wrote that, I tried to track her down. I found different poems written by this young lady, I felt that was where she was. I’ve been trying to track down a way of contacting her. There is no way. My gut is, she may no longer be with us. Learning to go with your gut, right? That part of me has been strengthened. When talking with people on the phone, you don’t have body language, any of that stuff, right? Sometimes, yes, in the stuff they’re saying, the way they’re approaching things … I would not hesitate to question. I’ve got a friend who is generally good at getting back at e-mails. She’s not. She’s been going through stuff. I’m going to tune into her not responding right away. It was the death of a friend that really bottomed me out, watching the death of a friend at 46. So I kind of look into that whole loss thing, the loss of a job, a friend, endings, right, so when I hear people talking about the things they lost, yeah, I start to tune in a bit differently. Even if they say they’re OK, I might tweak in a sense of concern, but do I know? No, I don’t really know how a person is coping unless I ask.

(I asked about other signs she picks up on.)

A change in behavior is one of the biggest. Really, anything you notice in the other person that doesn’t quite seem like the person you are most familiar with. It doesn’t necessarily mean you jump to suicide, but it might be something on their mind. But this friend of mine, she lost her friend to cancer, she lost her mother, she’s not e-mailing, sure. I’m gonna start to bug her. Not necessarily because I’m thinking she’ll become suicidal, but I know she’s having a hard time coping. Suicide wouldn’t necessarily be in everyone’s line of thought. When a group like Yvonne’s, for those of us who struggle on an everyday basis, one of the common denominators is past trauma. That’s where the hard work comes in, I really do believe you have to do trauma work. I think to a certain extent there’s stuff to be worked on to start to be able to move beyond and cope differently. And yes, I avoid my own trauma work.

Wait a minute, you don’t do it at all?

No, not that, but if I can distract the counselor, get off kilter …

There’s a debate in Canada right now over the right to die. Is that a completely different topic?

They’ll be talking about that at the upcoming conference. There is a difference between someone being chronically ill and wishing to die and someone just wishing to die because they can’t take it anymore. I think they’re really looking at assisted suicide for those chronically ill, who are not going to live anyway. There is a distinction there. I personally, yeah, it would hurt if someone I knew died by suicide, I would definitely never consider assisting them in that, as I would never expect anyone to assist me. Yet on the flip side, I would understand why they maybe made that choice and maybe ended up dying by suicide. Yeah, it’s two different topics, right? And I think the whole, like, you’re looking at individuals who can’t look after themselves, function poorly, have no sense of life, that comes into that. It’s a debate, all right. It will be interesting to see how that conversation goes.

Are you speaking at conference?

Yes.

And finally, who else are you, aside from these experiences?

This is what has made me, really. To me, maybe this is who I am. I mean, I wouldn’t be having this conversation with you, right? OK. Photography, I love my photography. I played a lot of sports growing up. I  was a very active person. There’s not a lot that I wouldn’t do on a challenge, so I hope to jump out of an airplane next year. With a chute. I have my goals and my aspirations, and they keep changing. But really, I have to look at my experience with my suicide as my stepping stone for who I am now and where I want to go and who I want to be. And ultimately, I would like to help others.

I wish you luck with your new job.

Thank you. I’m excited and nervous.

Talking with Carolyn Edgar

This month I came across The Siwe Project, which focuses on mental health awareness in what it calls the “global black community.” What drew me there was a newly posted essay by Carolyn Edgar, who describes herself as a Harvard law graduate, a writer and a single mom. Her essay for the project’s No Shame Day begins bluntly: “My name is Carolyn Edgar, and I have No Shame. When I was fourteen, I tried to commit suicide.”

You can read it here. July 2 was the first No Shame Day, which is meant to encourage people to seek mental health help without fear of what others might think.

The Siwe Project is named for a girl who killed herself last year at the age of 15. Her story touched something in Carolyn, whose essay describes how reading a popular novel gave her the language of depression “and, to my confused teenage brain, its cure: suicide.” She then learned how difficult and painful an attempt could be.

I spoke with her over the weekend:

The Siwe Project was started to bring awareness and reduce stigma around mental health. Bassey Ikpi, the founder of The Siwe Project, created No Shame Day and asked people to contribute stories that touched upon mental health awareness.

I’ve been in the process for a couple of years now of trying to pull together a memoir. I had recently written about my own attempt, and the story was fresh in my mind, so I decided to contribute my story to No Shame Day.

This was the first time you told your story in public?

Yes.

What were the responses like?

No one has responded negatively, as in, “Oh my God, I didn’t know you were crazy.” It’s all, “Thank you,” “It was brave of you to share,” “I’m sure it will help somebody,” “If you feel that way again, talk to me.” Generally, “Wow, we had no idea, you’re brave to come forward.”

The reason I decided to do it was the story of Siwe Monsanto, Bassey Ikpi’s young friend, a 16-year-old girl who committed suicide, which inspired Bassey to start The Siwe Project. When you hear about an adolescent committing suicide, people might think their problems aren’t serious enough for such a drastic step. People tend to minimize the problems of adolescents. But the life you have then, as a teenager, is the life you know. Real issues, real problems. And because people tend to minimize adolescent problems, they sometimes overlook the need for real treatment.

As for my story, at that time, people in my community were not forthcoming talking about mental illness. My family were not wealthy people, and my mother really had to ask around because resources were not readily available in our community. And the cost was a factor. We were not rich people. In 1979, it was remarkable that my mother understood that what was going on with me was serious, and that it needed a serious response, and that I required mental health treatment, not just taking me to see the pastor. She was visionary, and I really appreciate it.

Have you had other attempts since then?

Certainly I have had moments since then where I’ve thought about it. My attempt gave me information I didn’t have about what it would take to actually go through with it. The other thing I think about it is, you really have to want to do it. It’s not like in the soap operas, where someone takes pills and the family gathers around. You have to face the possibility that you won’t be found or rescued. You have to know you don’t want to be found, you don’t want to be saved. You’re making the decision, “This is final.” And watching my mother at the end of her life, refusing treatments for her heart condition, I get it. The decision to actually commit suicide is a very serious decision. And when there were times that I really thought about it, I was not ready for my life to end. I was ready for the pain to end. I realized they were two distinct things.

I never made another attempt, but I’ve certainly had those thoughts. One period in law school, I called my mother late, late, late one night, and I had had a lot to drink, and because of that experience in high school, she was so responsive, and I felt very comfortable admitting to her what I was thinking. Once again, she said, “You need to talk to somebody. Promise me you won’t do anything tonight, and first thing tomorrow morning, you go talk to somebody.” And I did.

You said your mother refused treatment for her heart condition. Is that suicide?

No. I think for a period of time I had that thought, though. None of us wants to die, but we all envision having some control over that final moment. My father, who died of lung cancer, decided not to have chemo because he wanted control over the life he had left. The likelihood of treatment curing his lung cancer was low. He wanted quality of life. For my mother, it was pretty much the same. I think my mother recognized that the probability of the treatment really prolonging her life for maybe weeks or months also meant not having the quality of life she had experienced. It’s not suicide as much as having control over how the ending occurs, wanting there to be a level of dignity.

Is there any dignity in that happening earlier in life, before the question of having an illness?

I think there can be. These are such personal decisions. It goes to the very heart and core of who we are and what we believe about how we want our lives to go. There can be dignity in those decisions. I think no one wakes up and frivolously says, “I’m done.” It comes after a lot of soul-searching, facing a lot of truths that are personal. Like Don Cornelius, taking his life because he apparently was in so much pain. He took his life in such a violent way, but again he was wanting to maintain control over the ending. It’s where the dignity factor comes in. Even in a situation where it’s not terminal. “If this is what functioning is, I don’t want to function anymore.’

Do you think it’s easier to come back and move on from a suicide attempt if it happens when you’re young?

I don’t know. It may be true that an attempt later in life becomes more of a stigma. I have faint scars on my wrists, and I have not covered them up, but no one has ever asked about them. Maybe they think it was some childhood accident. It always struck me as curious. I’ve never had the habit of wearing long sleeves to cover it, but no one has asked! They’re fainter now. But I always find it interesting. If no one asked, I wondered if people were embarrassed to ask or didn’t notice.

I don’t know, but I do think there’s something in just being honest with people about who you are and what you’ve been through that makes them less judgmental than if you conceal it. I’ve found that with other difficulties in my life, like going through my divorce. When I was trying to pretend everything was fine, I was suffering. But I found tremendous support in telling people. There was so much more support for that. Even with mental health issues. It humanizes you in a way. Everything has something they’ve gone through.

Is it harder with suicide? People seem to not know what to say or how to deal with it sometimes.

I’d agree with you. In the reactions to my piece, I didn’t get “I did that, too.” No one personally said they had made an attempt as well, but some said they knew people who had. You always wonder if some of the “friends and family members” were actually the person, not the person they “know.”

I’m not ashamed of that experience. I don’t think it should reflect negatively on a person that they made an attempt and survived. In my case, I didn’t come close to dying. I stopped myself well short once I realized how difficult it would be to do it. But I think in the recovery, whether an attempt one gets rescued from or, in my case, where you realize it takes a serious commitment to go through with it, in both cases you still have to find a reason to still want to be alive. In my case, I don’t see myself making another attempt. I have two children. I need to be there for them. I know I’m all they have. I’m a single mother, and their father is not really in their lives. I go to therapy on a regular basis, just to make sure I don’t get to that point again.

How old are your children?

My daughter is 15 and my son is 11.

What if they read your story about your experience? Or have they?

I don’t know if they read my essay. They do read my blog. When they become aware, when they read it, we’ll talk about it. They, too, have never asked about the scars on my wrists. But I talk a lot about therapy and mental health. Being in therapy when my mother passed probably saved my life. If they needed mental health treatment, I would not hesitate to get it for them.

Does suicide mean mental illness?

I felt I was depressed. I came up with my self-diagnosis with the book “Ordinary People.” I still love the way the book gave insight into the process of therapy. I decided, based on what feelings I had and what I was going through, that I was depressed. I was never diagnosed, but I saw a therapist a couple of times. I probably was suffering from depression. But I don’t think a requirement for someone to make a suicide attempt is to have mental illness, to have a diagnosis, something in the DSM. The fact that someone made an attempt may be the signal that something in the DSM may fit them, but I don’t think one necessarily follows from the other.

You asked about end-of-life decisions, is that suicide or euthanasia or something else. I think there’s a gray area where you can make a rational decision not to live any more and not have a mental illness. I don’t think that’s a popular opinion, but that’s the way I think about it.

Why is it not a popular opinion?

There’s still such a stigma around euthanasia and end-of-life care that anything else short of treatment is giving up, not fighting. I see people struggling with “What does fighting mean? Every little treatment, you should take it? What about the side effects?” My mother was not interested in being tethered to a wheelchair or a bed. And yet, it seems in this country that you can’t talk about such things without people talking about “death panels.” We’re not at the point in this country where we can have that conversation about the end of life.

And most suicides are tragic. Look at the people who are left behind. But all death is tragic. Perhaps suicide is preventable when mental illness is involved, but perhaps not. Who knows the pain and suffering a person is going through?

Is it perhaps better for someone to never mention their attempt, so they move on and don’t live in that moment?

Even if you are no longer in that place, acknowledging that you’ve been there can be huge for some people. Right now I’m a successful lawyer, with a great job and family. But when you don’t talk about it, you relegate it to only people who meet a certain profile. You always see in the movies some super-tragic event in life and the person suddenly takes out a gun and blows their head off. But that’s a stereotype. For me, no one experience made me do this. It’s a state of being. I think for many others, it’s not a moment but something they’ve thought about for a period of time. Suicide is a decision, and when I make a decision I believe in, it’s always the product of a very difficult but well-thought-out process. The “Thelma and Louise” scenario, I would guess that’s not a majority of suicides.

What do you think of the current resources, the suicide prevention groups and crisis lines?

I’ve not had the need to take advantage of the hotlines, and I can’t speak to what they’re like. I will say, I just don’t think that mental health resources in general are available enough, especially in underprivileged communities. And when they are available, they tend to be very expensive.

After a suicide, people ask, ‘Why?’ Do you think attempt survivors are in the best position to answer that question? Or is every death by suicide so individual that no answer really works?

Probably the latter. There’s no one “why.” People who survive attempts can understand the emotions, the thought processes, but no one ever knows why. Sometimes there’s no why. It gets back to the idea [that suicide is caused by] the catastrophic event, whereas it’s often something people think about for a while.

And I don’t know if asking “Why?” ultimately is a fruitful discussion to have. So if you find out that someone who was bipolar, for example, was suffering from an episode they couldn’t recover from, how does that really help anyone? Aside from saying, “Make sure people get appropriate treatment.”

Another question is, “What could I have done?” I think there’s a fair amount of arrogance in that question. If only they had talked to you about it, you’d be their savior. I always ask, “What exactly would you have done? What precisely would’ve been different?” But there’s the persistent belief that if only someone had known, they could’ve been talked out of it, and that’s not necessarily true.

Are there others who have come out about their own experiences whom you admire?

Honestly, I can’t think of anyone. People with mental illness never admit the depths the disease may have led them to. Catherine Zeta-Jones talked about being bipolar, but she never talked about what that meant day to day. You tend to get more from people talking abut drug abuse and addiction. There’s still a veil of secrecy around mental health, even when it’s discussed. Even in my own case, over the course of several years, there was a period when I tended to think of it as cutting, something less than a suicide attempt. So if someone asked, I had created a story around cutting, because it was easier to explain than suicide. It was not until working on my memoir that I came to process what it actually is and was. I can’t repackage it as something it wasn’t. There was a point where I took the razor blade and put it under my bed. I didn’t get into it in my essay, but there was a period of time when I would pull it out and make little slashes on my forearm. That was cutting. I felt a fascination with the thickness of skin and how much pressure it takes to make the most superficial cut. I just found it really fascinating for a period of time. But that was different from a suicide attempt.

When is your memoir coming out?

There’s no date yet. It’s something I’m still pulling together. My challenge has really been, “What is the purpose of telling my story?” It’s gone through several iterations. Telling the story of my suicide attempt came as a result of telling the story of being rejected by someone I liked. That has become a recurring theme, not feeling attractive, making bad romantic decisions. Working on this could be another couple of years. Hopefully not, though.

Finally, who else are you?

I’m a lawyer, a writer. I work for a Fortune 500 company. I live in Harlem. I have two kids. I have a cat. I’m a divorced single mother. I write, I blog. My pieces have been published by CNN.com and others. So that’s who I am. I like being a lawyer and a writer, trying to figure out a way to do both and not stop dreaming.

Reading about Christian Ellis

Christian Ellis was trained as a classical singer, and he turned his military experiences in the war in Iraq into an opera, “Fallujah.” It debuted this month with the help of City Opera Vancouver and can be seen here. Like many veterans, Christian has fought to adapt to his memories and to his return home. The former Marine says he has tried to kill himself four times. The opera begins shortly after the main character has tried to kill himself. Suicide is not the easy way out, he sings.

People who comment on the opera online tend to continue the intense debate about the politics behind the war. Christian’s intensity is more internal. “Literally one day, I would be talking to a buddy and the next thing I know he’s shot in the face dead,” he told The Associated Press. “How do you react to that? How do you move on from that? How do you deal with that?”

Time magazine is the most recent news organization to explore suicides in the military, saying 154 soldiers killed themselves in the first 155 days of this year.

I’ve asked Christian’s collaborators in the opera project for the chance to speak with him.

Reading about Carolyn Edgar

Last week, I came across The Siwe Project, which focuses on mental health awareness in what it calls the “global black community.” What drew me there was a newly posted essay by Carolyn Edgar, who describes herself as a Harvard law graduate, a writer and a single mom. Her essay for the project’s No Shame Day begins bluntly: “My name is Carolyn Edgar, and I have No Shame. When I was fourteen, I tried to commit suicide.”

You can read it here. July 2 was the first No Shame Day, which is meant to encourage people to seek mental health help without fear of what others might think.

The Siwe Project is named for a girl who killed herself last year at the age of 15.

Her story must have touched something in Carolyn, whose essay describes how reading a popular novel gave her the language of depression “and, to my confused teenage brain, its cure: suicide.” She then learned how difficult and painful a suicide attempt could be. “More importantly, I had knowledge I hadn’t had before about what it would actually take to finish the job.” But an open talk with her mother soon after her attempt pulled her off that course.

Talking with Mike Stutz

“You want to stop a conversation quickly? Tell someone you’d like to make a funny movie about suicide. It’s a little like asking a stranger about their favorite masturbation techniques. A sour look is followed by uncomfortable silence and a quick exit.”

This is how longtime director Mike Stutz introduces his new documentary, “Don’t Change the Subject,” which barges through all the careful whispers and outright silence on the topic with a healthy mix of warmth, irreverence and personal experience. And clowns. And stand-up comedians. It’s safe to say you’ve never seen anything like it. And now you should.

Mike as a child cradled his mother as she was dying of suicide, and it took him years and years to realize that his stepmother had done the same for her dying father when she was young. They had never talked about that shared experience. It had never come up. “If Judith and I had avoided this conversation all these years, then how many other folks out there are still busy changing the subject around the dinner table now?” They decided Mike should explore it, make a film, see if he could change the way people deal with suicide. The first plan for the documentary was to feature celebrities he knew. They all said no. “First decision: Fuck the famous people,” Mike writes in his director’s notes.

So they talked to real people. They include several suicide attempt survivors, including comic Brian Finkelstein and a man who describes jumping off a bridge, recovering in the same room with a man who had tried to shoot himself and feeling sorry for him. One young woman describes the annoying gap between the typical responses to an attempt _ “It’s just a gesture” _ and to a completed suicide. “They only see it in one extreme or the other,” she says. “It’s like, for me, to be really serious and have people believe that I’m really serious about it, I basically would have to die. But then if I were to die, everybody would be like, ‘Oh I should have seen the signs. I can’t believe she did this to me.'”

Mike has been taking the documentary to screenings around the country and plans a wider rollout later this year. He’s had encouragement from suicide prevention groups, though they’re so nervous about any mention of suicide methods that they won’t show the film themselves. “They are so cautious, so unbelievably cautious,” he says.

After watching the documentary and talking with Mike, I’m pretty convinced he can make anyone comfortable. He leapt into our conversation with several questions of his own, and after a while I realized, “I’d better start writing this down.” Here goes, easing into one of his thoughts midstream:

It was important to me as an interviewer to show respect to the person that I’m interviewing and to understand that this can be a really difficult subject to talk about. But that doesn’t mean I should walk on eggshells when interviewing them. Rather, I try to give them the space to talk honestly and openly about their experience. I think it’s condescending to speak in hushed, overly reverent tones. Talking frankly about it really helped, allowed them to open up about their stories, so they’re not treated like, “Oh my God, you’re such a freak, how did it happen?” Who ever wants to feel that way? And that’s very much the goal of the movie, to try and take some of that stigma away.

Did that approach always work?

I find that with the survivors I talked to, anyway, when we’d sit down and have an honest conversation, generally yes, it worked really well. I know sometimes when I take the film somewhere, or people hear about the film, they think it’s not gonna work. A lot of resistance: “Not respectful.” I understand that. Obviously it’s a very painful subject. But I find, with few exceptions, that when people see the movie, or we talk, they understand there’s no disrespect intended, no slighting of the problem, no “Get over it.” Of course you take it seriously. I have very rarely, almost never, talked to someone directly about the subject and had a good conversation with them and then have them say, “I think this is inappropriate.” It’s hard for a viewer of a movie like this. You have to kind of trust the filmmaker. You have to trust I’m going to take you down this path, create that hopefully fulfilling experience in the end. But I get the “Why should I trust you?” I’m just glad in general, those who are willing to go down that path are willing to go down it.

(He asks what I think of the documentary.)

It was amazing getting to talk to everyone. When you ask where did I find the people we interviewed for the movie, we kind of started off through official channels, different psychiatric connections people on the film had. Imagine, when we’d explain what the film was going to be, people would say, “Oh no, forget it.” We ended up mostly doing Craigslist postings. Also, one producer, a lovely warm person, talked with people in the field, did pre-interviews, made sure we were not going to make them uncomfortable. I didn’t talk to them until we sat down on camera. I think we only interviewed, say, 18 people, and 16 are in the movie. And it seemed that many of the folks who came to us wanted to talk to someone about it. For some, it was the first time they’d had a lengthy conversation about it. You sit down in this dark room, talk for a while. It’s nice to be able to share their story, hopefully not in a judgmental place. It’s nice to be able to talk to someone. One of the places the movie was born out of was me saying to my wife, “Oh, it’s interesting to talk to people who’ve gone through this,” and she said, “You’ve never talked to anyone?” I’d written about it but never had a discussion with others who have had suicide in their family. So I think they felt the same way. Extra rewarding to me was, the people in it have seen it, and I got really strong responses from them supporting it. A couple of folks I haven’t talked to, so it’s possible. But I know our producer Matt talked to them afterwards, to make sure they were OK. My fear would be, you create the movie and a year later people are like, “On my God, I can’t believe I did that.” It’s funny what you’ll give up sometimes. The people on your site have been very open.

The film is full of color and humor, but it seems like there’s less of that in the interviews with survivors and attempt survivors. Why?

One, on a practical level, we were low budget. We were doing it in different settings. We needed enough room where we could set up lights. The first interview is with Richard, who talks about jumping off a bridge. It’s not a black background. It was the first interview we did. We had this room not really prepared correctly, full of junk. Richard was there, ready to go, and we kind of set it up. We pulled these big 70s white chairs together and just went with it. It turned out to be a fascinating interview. But because we were always in different spaces, we were going to have 16 abstract backgrounds and they weren’t going to match at all! So it became practical. I mean, you could do things metaphorical. At least they were uniform-looking interviews. Why black instead of more color is, I really wanted to focus solely on their story, didn’t want you to be distracted by anything. I didn’t want to dress it up. The words they were saying were so important. If you look, we had a very good director of photography. One thing I’m proud of is, we left in a lot of “um”s and “ah”s, we didn’t try to cut away while they thinking. You could actually see the thoughts register. You see the thought process happening. You see them making the decision, almost as if we are seeing them say, “What I’m telling you is the truth, then I’m telling you another level of truth.” Everything about the movie, we just had to allow things to happen. Every plan got knocked off course. We also tried to interview all these celebrities, but they seemed horrified, So the interviews were with people you had not heard of before, and it was much more compelling.

Who did you approach who seemed horrified?

I don’t really want to out anybody as not participating, because it’s not their fault. They’re not bad people for having said no. It’s just surprising to me how universal that answer was. We did approach 12 to 15 reasonably well-known folks, some I’ve known personally. The answer was always very polite: “Oh, it sounds great, what a fascinating idea, let me check my schedule,” and it kind of went on from there. Sometimes it was just “No.”

(I mention the common feeling that it would take a celebrity to bring the subject into the open.)

I think it’s true. I understand why they don’t want to talk. You know, you have a site dedicated to talking about suicide, and I bet a lot of people wince when they hear about that. If it’s a celebrity, who works in comedy or lighter entertainment, the people around them tell them, “People don’t want to hear that.” You ever watch Dr. Drew? He gets that look, all sad, kind of pouty when he talks to some of his patients. As an entertainer, you don’t want people to make that pouty face. If either you attempted or someone close to you did, people are like, “Are you OK, what issues did they have?” They avoid the topic if they can. But I agree. If all the people in the entertainment industry who have attempted or even thought about it talked about it or at least said it exists, it would be tremendously helpful. The thing about suicide is, people think they’re the only one who has these feelings, they think something’s wrong about them for having these thoughts. If we could just talk, say, “Everyone has had some level of anxiety, depression, mental distress in life, and some have to cope with it every day. We all go through it.” And I’m shocked whenever I go to colleges and talk to people, how many college students don’t understand depression is a disease, that it can be treated, that we should talk about it. But they don’t know because no one talks about it, or if they do, it’s mostly hushed and downward looking. More anymore, people are opening up about their own problems. But with a few exceptions, it’s not something you’re going to volunteer. Like you said, “I’m not going to talk to someone on the street about it.” I wish we were at a place where we could talk about mental anguish to the point where we could talk about having the flu last week. And the irony is, you’re not going to catch it! I can hear that, I can feel for you, but I won’t necessary catch it.

(I ask a rather tangled four-part question about how long the interviews usually took, what parts were usually edited out, how humor played a part, if at all, and whether the interview approach differed for survivors and attempt survivors.)

They were typically 45 minutes to an hour and 15 minutes. I didn’t go at it differently between those who had lost someone and those who had tried it themselves. I mean, it’s all the experience of suicide, right? Obviously there are differences, but I guess I can only talk to someone and ask them questions about their lives. I let them, hopefully, guide me. I had no agenda coming in as to what I wanted out of them. I just talked to them about their experience. Everyone was pretty open, different levels of openness. A ton of fascinating stuff. I could post the raw interviews, and it would still be very interesting. In the end, what I chose to put on screen was usually that one person was going to share one angle on suicide, another person would give me a different color, all overlapping nicely. But as a viewer of the movie, I don’t need to hear it twice, you know? You asked about humor, when the interview was done, whether we joked about it. We joked about it during the interview! There were moments that were serious, but Richard, for one, was able to find dark humor in a serious subject. And Vanessa, making herself throw up because she didn’t want to disappoint her aunt. It was them sharing their own. Humor is very much a way of naming your fears. If I am able to share something that might make you laugh, you will allow me to open up about a subject where, if I approached in a guarded manner, you would not accept it. That’s why I chose to talk about my own mother’s death by using other performers, surrogates, in a semi-humorous way, semi-clowning my way through it. You’re able to step one step back. Nobody wants to sit and hear you talk about being a 12-year-old and finding their mother.

(I asked about the scene where he’s holding the bottle of pills his mother used to kill herself and saying it felt foreign to him. I wondered if he meant the idea of someone wanting to kill herself was foreign.)

I can see how you might read it that way. Even now, looking back on my mother’s death, in some ways when you’ve told the tale enough times, it can seem it wasn’t you. Actually holding the bottle of pills feels foreign because I can’t wrap my brain around that this bottle was one of the actual last things my mother held. That my mother is an abstract thought in my head now, I don’t remember specifically. But now I have these boxes of tapes, diaries. She was real as a person, but I can’t quite jump across that divide and feel her, smell her, hold her. She’s gone. I get where my mom’s mindset was, but the foreignness was in the idea that it was almost like talking about someone else. You just can’t believe whatever situation you were in, that that can just be real. In choreographing it, the whole concept of the movie is that a lot of people are not going to sit and talk to you necessarily honestly what they’re feeling about suicide, but if you allow a writer to sit in a writer’s room, or a dancer to work in the studio, etc., they’ll find it easier to talk about the subject. I wanted to put myself in the same situation. I direct people for a living. If I’m directing others, I might be able to go into it deeper. That’s my hope with the creative process in general. It’s interesting that you talk about color. When you’re depressed, the colors, everything gets very gray and you forget the details that make you want to stick around. That is to me like, all the things I’ve seen, in a sense they are the places I can be myself and find that color and detail. If the film was one giant piece of advice, it would be, “Try to find that place where you can see color, where you can feel more alive, because it’s very easy to forget that place exists and think there’s nothing worth sticking around for.” Obviously it’s more complicated than, “Oh, just go find your happy place,” but … I was reading about one of your articles, and a woman in Canada mentioned Maytree. I clicked and looked, and it seemed amazing. It seems like a place where you could have all these things sparking your brain to stick around.

(I asked him about his personal experience with suicidal thoughts. He’s mentioned being comfortable directing, blocking the scenes, but was he also, you know, blocking them in another sense?)

I’ve never been seriously suicidal. The ideation has not really been part of my funky makeup. Sure, we all have had moments where we’ve pondered. I never reached the stage where I have a plan. I go in a different direction. After my mom died, I was fairly OCD as a kid before my mom died, then I was solidly OCD once my mom died. So I had all sorts of kooky rituals. And to this day, I have to do a lot of sort of cognitive work with myself to keep under control. COD goes hand in hand with catastrophic thinking. I 100 percent understand what it is to have all sorts of thought patterns which are not what you would prefer and others think unusual. I am one large bundle of neuroses. There is one level of OCD of urges to, like, throw yourself out the window. But you have to learn not to act on it. It’s weird. It’s a good question, if some impulse suicides come from that. I have not suffered long-term chronic depression as my mother did. One thing that didn’t make it into the movie that was very interesting was my aunt Martha, as a psychiatrist, and also Dr. Kita Curry, the head of Didi Hirsch, had struggles early as kids and suffered from depression. And interestingly, both said when they got therapy as professionals, other professionals would not ask them if they were suicidal, as if it were professional courtesy. Our family has a lot of depression, but I chose my own form of mental illness. (Laughing.) It’s informed my work. I’m good at attention to detail. I can be focused for long periods of time to tiny things. It’s tiring. Very tiring. I’m guessing you have depression. Those kinds of things wears you down. I wonder, I’m always fascinated by, there’s studies of people where everyone is thinking they’re an outsider. Are there people who are truly, absolutely normal? What would that world be like? That would be amazing, to get up every day and be like, “Oh, beautiful morning!” I have no idea what that’s like. I’m generally upbeat, but there’s always something weird going on in the back of my head.

(He mentions his mother and having sympathy for people suffering.)

It must be really annoying to have people tell you to get up and take a bath. I saw the way others were treated. People are so condescending: “You just need to buck up!” Really? You are not helping me right now. I would love to not be anxious. The one weird, hard-to-explain thing that will never look good in print, which will look like more of a dramatic statement than I meant it to be, is that part of my obsessive nature is I’ve never had a level of suicidal ideation where I thought seriously about ending my life, but because of the way my mother died, the way my brain works, I think I will also die of suicide. I’m not making a dramatic statement that someday i will commit suicide. You look at the world and say, “That’s the way you die. You die of suicide.” It’s the way you see the world when you watch someone die of suicide. I want to stick around. One reason to make the film was to collect the reasons to stick around. It’s been one of the best experiences of my life. And I hope that for someone viewing it, they think the same thing. I will lose money and I will lose time, I will not gain fame, but it has advanced me leaps and bounds emotionally. And I hope that also helps at least, on some tangential level, helps someone out there.

(I ask that despite what he just said, what in his wildest dreams he’d like the film to achieve.)

A typical experience I’ve gone through, it’s rewarding but challenging, is that I’ll go to a school, fly a couple thousand miles to get there, and you’ll sit in the theater, and maybe 35 people show up. But then the great part is, the 35 people will stay there for the Q & A, and people will talk for a long time about a subject they didn’t want to talk about, so sure, there are times that I may think, “Hey, it would be great to talk to a wider audience.” But I don’t delude myself that there’s some sort of wide market for this. The suicide organizations, I got lots of compliments: “Oh, I’d share this with my staffers, but if someone mentions how they killed themselves in your movie, we can’t show it.” Then my answer is, we offer solutions. We do not do any of the things that fall into the realm of suicide contagion. They are so cautious, so unbelievably cautious. Active Minds works on campuses, and they have been really supportive. As has Didi Hirsch. But a lot of other organizations, they talked to me personally and said, “I’m glad you made it, but I would never show it to our clients.” So when you talk about the dreams, I don’t want to say this in a way, I’m very lucky to make this film, I have so many people supporting me, so I don’t mind not making money, gaining notoriety from it. But I do have days when I wonder, “Is this making a difference? When so many people are so cautious about it, am I saying the wrong thing? Maybe people aren’t talking about it for a reason.” We’re doing a festival in October called Day of the Living. An alternative way of suicide prevention. I’m very excited about that. But the battle to, like, even get something up is so big, you think, “Should I be doing this?” I don’t know the answer. I’m not totally convinced this isn’t some weird contrarian adventure I’m on. I’ve joked that if I had the money, I’d print out about 50,000 copies and leave them on bus benches for people around America. There is now with the movie a certain “If you build it, they will come” spirit to it. It’s encouraging to me.

You mention the cautiousness of the suicide prevention organizations. Can that cautiousness actually hurt?

When I read some of the interviews on your site, it was refreshing, the level of candor. I know for a fact that some of the organizations would say, “Oh no, you can’t say he took pills in the middle of Brooklyn.” I don’t want to walk on eggshells with my own answer. I think it’s well-intended. I think suicide contagion is real. But I think there’s tremendous confusion over what that really is. If you glamorize suicide, do a steamy piece on, like, Kurt Cobain, that can have a really negative effect. But I think if you’re approaching it in an honest way and you’re saying, “This is the difficult side of it, and here are places you can look to to get help,” that can never be a bad thing. “People have those thoughts. It’s OK. Talk about them. Talk to us, here are others, but talk.” I have had one person who was at one of the schools who said, “But frankly, we in the psychiatric community have become as much a part of the problem as of the solution, because we are so afraid that we shut down discussion about suicide.” And that’s not the answer. Yes, it’s possible that you could make a mistake in talking about suicide. But how many people will die if you don’t say a thing? You have studies on how many people die because people talk about it, but I’d like to see a study on how many people who’ve died because no one talks about it. I don’t think that’s fair. A movie, or a website, or a letter, or whatever, doesn’t kill someone. They kill themselves. You need to be responsible in dealing with the subject. You do have to take it seriously. You have to at least think about it. The biggest guff I take with the movie is, what is also for a lot of people their favorite part, the comic piece “Daddy’s Suicide.” A lot of people like it because it names that fear. It’s so over the top that it’s clearly satirical. But there are others who watch it and say, “How could you do that?” I’m like, “Are you serious?” We even have a slate beforehand to point out this is a theatrical performance. And then after it, the first words I say is, “OK, maybe some of my stuff is inappropriate.” I don’t know how you can think that’s a real video of a father blaming his children for his death. And yet, you hear that. And all of that said, I want to say, I get it. Some people are so close to the issue that any humor is too much to take. I shouldn’t harangue them for not liking it, but it’s just so obviously … Many people have said it. But then others say, “That was the funniest part, that’s where I bought in.” That’s the litmus test of the movie. People are fragile, you know? Of course it’s a hard thing, but we can wrap ourselves so fully in bubble wrap to keep from being bruised. I’m not sure that’s the best way to go about it. Without opening up a dialogue, without humor, how else are we supposed to explore? To me, comedy comes from a surreal situation.

This is a question very off that topic, but I wanted to remember to ask it: Do you think it’s better for a suicide to come after a warning or to come as a surprise?

I would rather have a warning so I could try to stop it.  But in the end, someone may still kill his or herself, and that is their decision. Even with a warning, you can’t always stop someone. So I don’t know for me. My mother was suicidal, I don’t know if she attempted before she died, but people knew she was suicidal. I’m not sure that I completely understood that. I knew before my mom died that there was a good chance she was gonna die. I didn’t know what to do with that information. Like, yeah, it could happen. One thing the film touches on, there’s some small part of you that goes, “Oh, the trouble’s over.” You feel kind of shitty for feeling that way, but the person was always in pain, in trouble, that at least some part of you registers that thought, even if you didn’t want it. But I suppose if my mother had sat down with me a week before and said, “I’m going to kill myself, I’m really sorry,” it probably would have been really scary, hard to process. So probably not. I did express in the movie that I wish my mother had left a note: “I love you very much, I hope this will be beneficial to you.” I don’t know, in answer to your question. I guess the right answer is, get the warning, but it’s hard for an 11-year old to process.

For all of my flip attitude, if someone close to me, my wife, my friends, committed suicide tomorrow, I don’t know, maybe my feelings would change. I hope I never find out. It would be perfectly valid for someone to see a movie like this and say to me, “Fuck you, I’ve been through a very hard time, I don’t find anything funny about suicide.” I use humor to deal with pain.  Not everyone does.

And you’ve had no walkouts during the film, no hate mail, things like that?

We do have walkouts sometimes. Usually one or two, occasionally more. But not always in anger. It’s a lot for some viewers to take. But, almost to a person, there have been positive responses. The few e-mails really lecturing and giving me the what-for about who I think I am are invariably from psychiatrists. Not social workers, or survivors, or grief counselors. I should say a vast majority of psychiatrists I’ve spoken with have been very supportive. But there have been a few that have had some choice words for me. So. But I also got some really nice notes: “I would show this to my clients, my groups.” The ones with the biggest issues seem to be the ones with the most letters after their name. I’m trying to think about responses from someone who actually attempted. Those generally been really positive: “Hey, I’m so glad this movie exists.” My actual sense of humor is so dark, so weird, that this movie is like a softer version. I think you can find humor in anything, and you should.

A new book on attempt survivors

Sabrina Strong, who runs the new and rather fascinating Waking Up Alive House in New Mexico, recently passed along a letter from a man named Clifford Williams. He’s a philosophy professor and author, and he’s collecting interviews with survivors of suicide attempts for a book he’s planning. I spoke with him this week. He asks two questions: What led up to your attempt? And how have you dealt with your life since then?

It’s interesting. I didn’t do anything to get to know Cliff before I spoke with him, aside from confirming that his other book of interviews, “One More Train to Ride: The Underground World of American Hoboes,” is indeed listed on Amazon and that he is displayed as a faculty member at the college mentioned on his website. But if he wants to sit back and let people tell their stories, I didn’t mind helping.

“Yes, I would certainly use people’s real names if they so choose,” he said in an e-mail before we talked. “Each story will have a two or three sentence introduction, and that can be the place to state the person’s identity. My reason for telling interviewees that they will be anonymous is that I am assuming that they will tell me more if they are anonymous.”

He added, “How did I get into this? About thirty years ago a student came to my office wanting an extension on an assignment because that morning she had been to the hospital to have her stomach pumped because she had tried to kill herself. I had no idea what to say to someone who had just tried to kill herself, so I asked a doctor friend. He said, ‘Listen.’ When the student came back, I listened. And I started listening to other students who came by, and after awhile I had droves of students I listened to, in my office, at lunch, after they graduated, anyplace I encountered them. (I gave the student an extension!)”

If you’d like to participate, you can find him here.