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.
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?
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.