Talking with Cheryl Sharp

I came across Cheryl Sharp when I read her firsthand story of her several suicide attempts in the National Council magazine, whose latest issue focuses on suicide. She writes that her first attempt was in seventh grade, when she tried to kill herself with aspirin: “I had heard that this would kill you.” She told a teacher. Her parents weren’t told. There was no hospital visit and no counseling. She didn’t see a therapist for more than a year. Her attempts continued, and people told Cheryl or her parents that she was just seeking attention. “Yes, I screaming at the top of my lungs for attention, but I also was screaming that I wanted ‘out’!” Cheryl writes. She credits a “very tough and direct psychiatrist” for steering her into taking responsibility for her own life after her last attempt at age 24.

Cheryl started talking publicly about her experiences soon after that. She’s now 55, which means she’s been at this for three decades. When we spoke last week, she warned that people who are interested in talking publicly about their experience should be prepared to be judged or pitied. She added, “I don’t think you have to have your act totally together to speak out about it. After all, does anyone?”

Who are you? Please introduce yourself.

That could be a three-day conversation! I’m Cheryl Sharp, special advisor for trauma-informed services for the National Council. And I’m a wife, a mother, a grandmother, a friend, a sailor, and I’m a suicide survivor of multiple attempts. And I have been living well for many years now.

Why did you come out about your attempts?

I’ve always been out and about about my story. It’s basically who I am, and there’s so much shame and stigma about mental illness, so much guilt many of us carry. I hope that you’ll get this webinar I did on depression and listen to that. And so I started my recovery journey in 1982. I had had a long bout and was kind of at the end of the really pronounced suicide attempts. I started in 1982 and always have been public about my story; I spoke nationally and internationally through a 12-step recovery program. I just made the decision I was not going to hide who I was, not be ashamed of who I was, not be ashamed of what happened to me. I’m sure there were people who judged me along the way, but it’s their loss. I wish that I had had someone who could talk to me. I wish there had been someone I could have identified with when I was so desperate to want to take my own life. There was no one, so if not me, then who?

Has that improved? Are there a lot more people out there now talking about their experiences?

There are some. I am a professional person, and there’s even more stigma surrounding professionals who speak publicly about their own struggle. But I don’t think there are enough people. It’s a hard conversation to have. I have a much larger audience now than I have had in the past due to my affiliation with the National Council. Kevin Hines is the only other person I’ve spent time with who’s been really vocal about the experience. I think many more of us need to speak up. There’s no shame in having had the thoughts and the feelings. To me, I feel like I’m showing compassion to other people who struggle. I would’ve wanted to have had that compassion.

You work in the mental health field, and I’ve noticed that several people I’ve spoken with work in that field. I thought the mental health profession would be a more understanding profession for someone speaking out.

Not necessarily. People will often share their struggles privately when I give presentations. They will often say, “I’ve never told anyone at work that I have had these problems. It’s not safe.” One of the things we do know, many people do go into the helping profession trying to figure out their own stuff. I went back to school based on a desire to help others like myself or my mother. I didn’t go back to school until I was in my 30s and graduated with my masters in my early 40s. I had figured out a lot by that time, understood a lot more about myself by that time. I was an older student, and it was obvious that many people in my graduate program were there because of problems they or a family member had. I was open, and that made them uncomfortable: “You can’t be a professional and talk about that stuff!” Oh yes I can. There’s nothing in my code of ethics that says I can’t. It’s just important to remember why you are sharing. Is it for your own benefit or in the best interest of the person you are supporting?

Did you win your classmates over?

It’s not my job to try to persuade people about anything. I can really only share my experience. I won’t stop talking about it. It’s not unethical. I’m someone who’s here to live my own life. I do not work as a therapist any longer but as a public educator and advocate. There is a difference. I also think there is a respectful and responsible way for a clinician to speak from experience. Knowing how and when to share is important.

You speak publicly, but what about in your personal life? Does it come up?

It depends on the setting. My husband and I were competitive sailboat racers. In the sailing community, it’s not a community in which I have that conversation unless someone shares their own struggle. When people asked me what I do, I’d say I’m an educator and work in the mental health field. My husband and I have been together eight years. When we met, I don’t know, maybe by the second or third date, I knew I liked him very, very much, and he liked me a lot. But why bother trying to move forward in the relationship if he doesn’t know the truth about who I am? He was a little taken aback at first: “I’ve never known anybody with mental illness.” I said, “You have four kids in your family. Statistically, one has a mental illness.” The bottom line is, my neighbors don’t know my story. Some relationships are superficial. I don’t really care who knows. I do not have “suicide survivor,” “trauma survivor” or “person who was diagnosed with a severe mental illness” tattooed across my forehead. Some of my lack of concern of others’ opinions may be that I’m almost 55, and what people think doesn’t matter much anymore.  It’s much more important what I think and feel about myself.

Is it easier to talk about it if you’re far removed from the attempts, time-wise?

I don’t think it matters how much time has passed.  I still have tremendous compassion for the teenager and young woman who was in so much pain. I think of those people out there that are feeling now what I felt then. I was telling my story in a public way when I was 24, 25, 26. When the situation calls for it, I can. Who am I living my life for? I think it caused some discomfort with my parents. My father is still alive. I don’t know if he would be real thrilled. So much I do in the mental health realm, he doesn’t know. If he did know, it would be fine. He does know I was called to do the work that I do.

You’re not suicidal anymore?

I haven’t been suicidal in years. Do I get down? Yes.

If you would still find yourself slipping into that bad place, would you be as open?

Yeah. I’m very open now, when things get hard. I don’t know what next year’s gonna bring, or next month. My husband is physically very ill. I don’t know how I’ll respond if something happens to him. It would be a very difficult time for me. I don’t know what my response will be. I know what I put in place in my life to support myself when things get really hard. I don’t want to ever be this person who’s put on a pedestal: “She’s fixed, it’s all done.” Believe me. I have worked and continue to work on being as mentally well as possible.  Through all of this time I have become so much stronger, so much more resilient. I have tools to use when life gets overwhelming. No one can take care of me except me. I know that was so much of my frustration and despair, I desperately wanted someone else to take care of my pain, to help me, to fix me. No one is the master or mistress of another’s soul.  We are each independently the only ones who can quiet our inner demons.

How does a person decide when it’s the right time to talk about their suicide experience?

If a person wants to go public with their story, number one, please know how to tell your story, how to speak publicly. It’s important to also be prepared to be judged or pitied. If someone is still actively suicidal, I don’t know if I would speak publicly about it. For one, you could end up in the hospital if people take it the wrong way. However, I don’t think you have to have your act totally together to speak out about it. After all, does anyone?  I’m almost 55, and I still have a lot of mistakes to make, still a lot of learning to do.

In your story for the National Council magazine, you say you were helped by a tough, direct therapist who said you needed to take responsibility for yourself. Do you think there should be more toughness and directness in suicide prevention messaging? What more should be said?

I am not sure “tough” is the right word. She was very kind, very understanding, but she didn’t mince words. She told me her truth and asked me to look for my own.

Hopeful approaches. One thing I always say is, “Suicide is a permanent solution to a temporary problem.” I wish it was printed on suicide prevention cards everywhere. It’s very direct. The other thing is, it took a long time for me to learn that everything changes. When I thought there was no hope, the one thing I’ve learned is if you stick around long enough, something’s gonna change, the universe is gonna shift, life will be different. When I get really down, like with my husband’s illness, I get scared. I don’t want to live alone. Financially, it’s scary. It would be a horrible thing. So when I get down, one thing I tell myself is, “OK, you can be down today, so go to bed and tomorrow will be different.” And when I look back, it is. I don’t feel as devastated today as yesterday. It’s part of when I do speak out, for people who are trying to hold me up as this wonderful paragon of being “beyond it,” I speak clearly about how I am struggling now and the direction I’m trying to go in. I’m a person who’s becoming, not a person who’s done.

Are there other approaches in suicide prevention that are worth exploring and not shushing up?

One of the things that was powerful to me was my mentor. I called her feeling very suicidal many years ago. We lived a long distance from each other, and one thing she said to me was, “Cheryl, I love you, I have seen you struggle so hard and so long, and it’s very hard to watch you struggle. I can’t do anything for you 2,000 miles away, but I want you to know if I woke up tomorrow and you were gone, I would be devastated. I would be so very sad.” That had a profound impact on me. What was so helpful was, she took it out of judging me or fixing me and just was very real with me. She could have said, “Oh, your parents would be so upset!” She didn’t do that. She just talked very plainly about how hard it would be for her. That was huge. That was the last time I had serious thoughts of suicide.

The other thing is, you cannot underestimate hope, other people holding hope for you. I’ve had other people say to me, “If you don’t have hope for yourself, I will hold it for you.” That’s also helpful.

How to make this topic more comfortable for everyone to talk about?

More people being willing to speak out. Are you familiar with Mental Health First Aid? It’s a National Council program. It educates lay people on how to support those struggling with various mental illness issues. Suicide prevention is one of the key ones we address. It’s part of what we talk about. It’s being able to have the conversations. We’ve trained over 70,000 people to have conversations they’re really comfortable with.

When “coming out,” is it better to talk to someone a bit more distant than a loved one? For example, my dad knows my background, but when I mentioned to him this interview and other suicide-related work I was doing today, he changed the subject immediately. If someone comes out to a loved one and the reaction is uncomfortable, would that keep the person from speaking to anyone else?

Your dad loves you. For him it’s not just uncomfortable, it’s painful. One of my big memories is my taking a massive overdose of my mother’s medication and my father finding me, making me drink hot salt water to make me throw up and walking me around the neighborhood but never having that conversation with me. Ever.

Ever?

Ever. The last time I was hospitalized, my mother finally understood my struggle; the final time, I almost took the life of my son. I couldn’t leave him behind, so I had to take him with me. “Oh my god, if I’m thinking this, I need to go somewhere.” My family came. My father couldn’t tolerate it. I don’t love him any less for it. My mother even followed him out into the hallway and said, “You WILL come back to this group.” But I felt really sad that it was so painful for him.

How did the relationship develop with your mother from then on?

My mother was very ill. She had schizophrenia. She died of a medical doctor overdosing her on psych medication. But for a very brief period of time, she was having a good year. We were close, we managed to heal the relationship. Her understanding was very, very helpful.

If someone is out there saying, “Who do I talk to?’ what would be the best answer in general?

Someone who is wise, centered. What are the qualities of a good peer supporter? Someone who had similar experiences, who struggled to overcome difficulty. Someone nonjudgmental. Someone who listens, not preaches. Having an opportunity to think it through: “OK, who are the people in my life who might be OK to listen to this?”

Because we didn’t get the chance to talk about the circumstances around her attempts during our conversation, I e-mailed Cheryl a few more questions afterward:

What drove you to keep wanting to kill yourself?

I am not sure I would say I was driven to wanting to kill myself.  I think more than anything the level of desperation I felt in being unable to live without emotional pain is what drove me to try to kill myself. “Wanting” to die was not the way I felt. It was “not wanting” to live with the pain I experienced that led me to try.

Did you really think the methods you were using would kill you, and where did you get the idea that they would?

My first attempt was over 40 years ago, so I can’t remember how I came to know that they would kill me. This was during the time when the world was exploding with anti-drug messages, that drugs were terribly dangerous. I suppose in my adolescent mind I might have thought that any drug you overdosed on would kill you. When I look at all of the attempts, I usually only include the ones where I there was a consequence for the behavior. I do not include all of the times that I took my car over 100 miles per hour.

Should suicide prevention messaging include warnings that it’s very hard to kill yourself and that you could end up living with serious, permanent physical damage?

I am not sure what others would hear if this was the messaging. In some ways, the message feels a little bit like guilt-tripping. Those of us who are in that place could hear the message as a taunt and respond by thinking/feeling, “I’ll make darn sure I get this right” and amp up their efforts to do just that.

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