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.

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