More on Lazzaric Caldwell

I’ve written before about the case of Lazzaric Caldwell, a young man who has been prosecuted in a U.S. military court for his suicide attempt. This is a striking case, considering the military’s stated concern about the high number of suicides and other mental health issues among active duty members and veterans. (A suicide attempt for a U.S. citizen who is not a member of the military is not illegal.) Lawyers for Caldwell argued his case yesterday before the military’s highest court, and I wanted to share a website that has the collected, updated coverage of his case. The audio from this week’s arguments should be added as well. You can also read the court filings.

The Defense Department argues that Caldwell slit his wrists right after he was ordered into military detention over the attempted theft of a belt from a store off his base in Japan. The judges sounded skeptical yesterday. “If suicide is indeed the worst enemy the armed forces has in 2012 … then why should we criminalize it when a guy fails?” one of the judges on the panel asked.

The Marine Corps Times this month reported that the Pentagon has ordered an internal review of the laws under which a suicide attempt is treated as a crime.

Talking with Craig A. Miller

I came across Craig A. Miller because he did what no one does on the “I Attempted Suicide” section of The Experience Project website: He posted under his real name. Before his attempt at age 20, he fought a strong obsessive-compulsive disorder that had him, among other things, collecting the scraps of paper he found and writing poetry on them. Since his attempt, he has taken control of his life and recently self-published the book “This is How it Feels: A Memoir of Attempting Suicide and Finding Life.”

The response has been good. Here, Craig talks about finding the balance between safe messaging around suicide and the need to speak directly to connect with people. As a friend told him, “If we were 16 again, what would we want to hear to get better? If you were talking to yourself at 16, what do you think it would take for you to really listen?”

Craig also talks about pulling himself back from living on disability as a young adult, his first-date confessions to the woman who would become his wife and what he hopes his two young children will think then they get old enough to read about his past. “I hope when they turn and become teenagers and think Dad doesn’t know what he’s talking about, I hope they’ll read this and see he does,” he says. “I hope they’ll be proud of what I overcame.”

Who are you? Please introduce yourself.

In general, I’m just an average guy who has had a lot of unfortunate events in my life. Sadly, that’s not very uncommon. But I always had the notion there’s something more, maybe these unfortunate events are gonna add up to something for me. It’s where I focused my hope, to get through the things I did. It sounds kind of silly, but it’s at the core of who I am. It’s at the essence of what got me from my first memories to now. I’m 36, and what’s always remained within me is that hope. There is a purpose. There is a reason. You go through life events to learn, to build something in ourselves, and that’s what I’ve tried to do.

Writing was always there for me since I was a teenager, when I first developed mental illness. I guess mental illness, like suicide, is one of those words you can say and silence a crowd. I developed obsessive compulsive disorder and anxiety. I was about 15 when I was first admitted to a psychiatric hospital. The doctors at the time determined OCD took up about 95 percent of my waking hours. But a lot of the symptoms were so intense that instead of being physical, like touching things and washing my hands, what you’d expect OCD to do, a lot of it was in my mind. I would have obsessive thoughts, and what made it so difficult was the fear that stemmed off of it, irrational, uncontrollable, extremely real fear. And it wasn’t like I was afraid of any one particular thing or even afraid of everything. It was just the pure raw emotion of fear. It’s the only way to describe it. It’s like waking up after a nightmare. You just sit there, kind of freaked out with nothing to pinpoint how you feel. And that’s what I lived with all the time. So when I say “mental illness,” to me, it was really focused on fear. I was constantly talking myself out of collapsing. And it just led to my writing, which was really the only thing I could do that was off-limits to my OCD. It’s how I poured out all my pain. I’d sit and write as often as possible.

One compulsion was to pick up scrap papers I found on the ground. So I started writing poems on them, whenever, wherever. In writing, I found a way to express myself, balance all those issues. When I was a teenager, from the time I was probably 14 until the time of my very real suicide attempt at 20, I spent every day talking myself out of suicide. The way I did it was by writing out my thoughts, examining who I was, why things happened, why I felt the way I did. Not as in “Why me?” but philosophically, “Why?” It’s what helped hold me together. It’s the essence of who I still am.

After my suicide attempt, it took me some years to get level and grounded. I would not suggest it to anyone, but I did my recovering without much help from anyone and anything. I gave the doctors and medications my best shot, but in the end I realized I was the only person who was gonna help me. I spent a few years struggling with that concept, believing that at some level there was more to my life experiences than suffering and that I had to find the answers within me for myself. In the end I overcame it. I went through a very rough period, but I did it. And my symptoms sort of dissipated. I think because I stopped giving them power.

Like I said, writing was something that was always with me. But it wasn’t until about two years ago when I had the opportunity to write an entire book. I wanted to write about my life. I knew I had learned a lot. And there was no bigger story in my life than my death. So I told my story through my suicide attempt. I think anybody who is coming forward with a suicide attempt story, I think it’s only fair to the reader, or the listener, that you tell the entire story, not just “Things were tough for me, and I couldn’t do it anymore.” People need to understand why someone would do such a thing. I think you have a responsibility to tell everything, or at least what you feel comfortable with. So I told everything I felt comfortable with. Stories of molestation, I talked about my parents, all kinds of people I knew growing up. I made sure to give them all anonymity as much as I could. But more than anything, I talked about myself. It was a huge hurdle to overcome, putting myself out there like that. People are gonna be able to read this, and there’s no coming back from that. Everyone will know I attempted suicide, and everyone will know why.

So I think if you add up the life I started with and the desire to find purpose in it all, and then finding the courage to tell my whole story, that’s really who I am overall.

You mentioned getting over your OCD and anxiety, not giving it power. What does that mean?

Part of the biggest struggle I had was, I let it own me. I think anyone with any type of mental illness, from self-doubt to schizophrenia, and anything in between, when it starts to consume you, you kind of know it in a lot of cases, and you feel like there’s nothing you can do about it. When you see it coming, and you feel it coming, it becomes your focus and it’s easy for it to become embedded in you. Now you find yourself having a mental illness, a chemical imbalance, you can barely even understand your own thoughts anymore. When you combine that with a history of tragedy, neglect and a bad upbringing and a lack of self confidence and self esteem, it becomes very easy to succumb to it completely, to say, “Wow, I’m messed up. I don’t have the strength to make this better.” I battled with that constantly.

But someone said to me once, and I thought it was awesome, “Love is something we’re born with. Fear is something we learn along the way.” We are born with happiness. We are born with love and self-esteem and self-worth, all these tools to help us be a strong human being. It’s only through the actions of others, or even ourselves, that those start to dissipate. When that happens, what you’re left with is emptiness _  the self-doubt, the lack of love, the lack of trust, the lack of self-confidence and strength. And once I reached that point where I really thought I was at the bottom, completely consumed, to the point that I didn’t want to wake up tomorrow, and I attempted suicide and was fortunate enough to survive, I found myself at the lowest point in my life.

I looked at that and realized, “I have nothing right now. I am empty, in terms of my soul, my will, my spirit. I grew up with pretty much nothing but negativity, enough that it caused serious issues. I’m 20 years old. I just tried to kill myself, and I have nothing right now.” Instead of looking at it as a “Poor me” scenario, as I had for the 20 years prior, I thought, “If I stop feeling bad for myself, stop making up reasons for it, like my parents didn’t do a good job, I was molested…etc.” I began to see the rest of my life as an opportunity. I thought, “You know what, if I’m going to live, then I’m going to live. There’s nothing to stop me.” So when I looked at the darkness and wondered how to get on with life, I looked at it as an opportunity to build myself into the person I wanted to be for the first time in my life: “I’m pretty fortunate to be at zero. I can start my life over, in a true sense, and I can begin healing. In a way that I now have control over it.”

That’s how I moved forward. I tried to figure out how to build myself for the first time as the person I wanted to be. I took little pieces of advice from each person I met and kept focus on it. I would stay focused on the positive of each experience I had throughout the course of a day. If I did something well, I would make sure I told myself that. Even if the only thing I did well was get through the day without a breakdown. I made myself acknowledge how strong I was for doing that. I stopped giving control of life to my illnesses and I gave control to myself. You know, I’m not going to wake up doubting myself anymore.

Up until my suicide attempt, I was on Social Security disability, collecting food stamps. I had nothing. I had a few clothes and a notebook. I looked in the paper and got a job. I called Social Security and told them I didn’t want to be on disability. I was 21 years old. Everyone around me was so scared that I was gonna relapse, go back: “Why put yourself through that kind of pressure?” Social Security said, “We’ll keep paying you for six months just in case it doesn’t work out. And if at the end you’re still working, we’ll stop payment.” So everyone around me, although encouraging on the surface, was really like, “Are you sure you want to do this?” But I knew myself. I knew in my heart I was ready to move on. I was gonna go forward, become who I wanted to become, take with me the good parts I learned along the way.

It wasn’t easy. I was living with my dad and his girlfriend, I had been renting a room from them, and even being on Social Security I would give them a portion of my check. I looked at my whole life and said, “This is not how I’m gonna live.” I got a job, started out in a company as what people would call a gofer, and within about two years ended up leading my own group, because I was so determined. I took that focus I had before on my illness and just turned it around and said, “If I could be so passionate about falling apart, why can’t I be so passionate about coming back together?” Within about six months of surviving my suicide attempt, I moved out of my dad’s house, got my own apartment and moved on from there. That was 16 years ago. Today, I’m happy. I’m married. I have two children. And I think I’ve overcoming enough that I’m OK to start talking about it and giving back. I’ve done my healing.

I read the first few chapters online at Amazon and looked through your blog and didn’t realize you have a wife and kids.

At the end of the book, in the author’s note, I put in that I was married and had two kids. The book is written about everything that happened before I was 20 years old, and I didn’t know my wife then. It’s told from a past tense perspective. But in terms of the present tense, my website and blog postings, I wanted to leave some of my family out of it. It’s a lot to come forward and say, “I attempted suicide, and this is why.” When I fill in the “This is why” part, it’s like a scratch in the record and a silence in the room. But I didn’t hold back anything. I thought it was important to be honest. So when people read it, they can see things similar to where they’re coming from. But I didn’t want to bring my wife and kids into it.

Do they know?

My wife, yeah. I have a 3-year-old and a five-month-old, so they won’t know for a while. But my wife, right from the first night we met. It must have been a hell of a conversation when we met. I knew she was the one. I just told her everything, my whole story in about two hours: “This is who I am, where I’ve been, where I am now, what I want to do with life. What do you think?”

What did she say?

She said, “Let’s meet again and get married.” So we got married. We’ve been together eight years, almost. And she’s 100 percent supportive of me. But I think it’s important to me at this stage of the story, this stage of my writing, that I stay focused on the earlier parts of my life. My first book was about my past, all the darkness that went with it. It wouldn’t be appropriate to include them in that yet. As I move forward with other books about how I got from there to here, it’s more appropriate to have them in the story. But it was very important up front to talk just about me. This is how it feels. It was really about me, and I had to put myself out there.

You also put your parents out there. How do they feel? Do they know?

My father, he called me up after he read it. Let me start by saying there’s a lot of stuff in the book even they didn’t know. They divorced when I was 2. So my mother didn’t know what life was like with my father, whom I didn’t see often. And my father didn’t know what life was like when I lived with my mother and stepfather. Neither one of them knew I was molested, either, or how bad school was for me. Kids at school knew I was molested, and that’s why I was bullied and picked on. But no one who should have known knew. I put out the book in July. My father read it, and he called and said, “Promise me one thing.” I said, “Yeah.” He said, “Never stop writing.” It meant a lot to me. He then took a breath and said, “I’m sorry.” My mother moved away to Florida about 10 years ago. I haven’t really spoken with her since. I did send her an email about the book. I know she read it. I don’t know what her response is. I didn’t ask. I just left it as it was.

Molestation, and kids at school knew? What are you comfortable saying about that?

There was this guy in the neighborhood who was mentally disabled. He was a lot older. I was about 6, and he was somewhere in his 20s. He started molesting me probably when I was 6 years old. It mostly happened beneath the crawl space under my mother’s house. He always tried it with other kids in the neighborhood; they were just stronger people than I was. I didn’t have the strength mentally or physically to fight it, I guess. So other kids knew. They didn’t actually see anything happen, but at that age, I don’t think you need to see anything for rumors to fly. I was really bullied pretty bad at times. But it just never got out. None of the teachers knew, my parents didn’t know, my brothers didn’t know. It was really weird.

You couldn’t tell anybody?

I could’ve. My mother was a very angry person, and I had a really bad relationship with my stepfather. I didn’t like him, and he didn’t like me. There was no trust. In a way, I blamed myself for everything that was happening, too. I was also afraid of what my mother would do. I was afraid of how my brothers would look at me. I was afraid of telling my father, another big angry guy. In a sense, I really felt bad for the guy who was doing it to me. He was mentally challenged and had the personality and the brain capacity of a 9-year-old kid. I just kept thinking, “It’s not his fault, not his fault.” There was another neighbor, an older guy, probably in his 60s, and I think he was molesting the guy who was doing it to me. So I think the same thing was happening to him, and he was just doing it to me. I just never felt strong enough or big enough to tell anybody. I felt such compassion for him. Believe it or not, I didn’t want anything bad to happen to him. I thought he just didn’t know what he was doing. There’s so much when I look back on that experience, everything I went through. In my teenage years, when I looked at it and hated him, I was very angry with all of it. For me though, it boils down to an incredible lesson in compassion.

You have two young kids. What happens when they grow up and can read this?

Hopefully they’ll be proud. I hope when they turn and become teenagers and think Dad doesn’t know what he’s talking about, I hope they’ll read this and see he does. I hope they’ll be proud of what I overcame. The book was written to help people, to help see life in a different way and the struggles we go through. And to help people who’ve never been there to understand what it’s like to be there, to attempt suicide. I wanted it to serve two purposes. The people who feel like there’s no hope, I hope they read it and say, “This guy has lived similar things, or at least he knows what it feels like on this level, this is how he overcame it.” I hope they are left with the same hope that got me through it. I think the book so far is accomplishing that. And then for the people who don’t understand what it’s like to suffer like that. … I had a high school teacher, and I was in a homeroom class before school started. He was really upset, withdrawn. The class dismissed. He said, “Miller, hang on.” He came over to me. He was a big guy. He was actually a football coach there. His eyes started filling up, and he said, “I heard on the radio this morning that some teenage kid committed suicide, and I thought it was you.” He started crying. He looked at me and shook his head and said, “I don’t understand, I don’t understand it at all.” I remember the sincerity in his eyes. In my mind, while writing the book, I knew I had to write to people who want to understand but don’t. People who have a loved one who has attempted suicide and don’t get what it’s like. So it was important to me to write with those people in mind too. The title was intended for that. But it’s also a very positive book. I aimed at keeping the book hopeful, while staying truthful and honest about how bad life really is sometimes.

What kind of responses have you had?

When I first finished it, I sent it to a book doctor, someone who looks at a book and says, “Yeah, it will work” or “No, it’s junk.” The guy wrote me back a four-page letter about why he couldn’t make it better. He said, “Don’t let this go, don’t stuff this under your bed. Try to find an agent and you will get published. Don’t give up. Keep going and do not doubt yourself. You have a great book here.” So I did what he told me not to do. I put the book under my bed and I said, “You know what, he was just feeling sorry for me. The book’s not that good.” A few months later I went to another editor, who was more money than I could afford, and there was like a nine-month waiting period. What she wrote back to me I completely disagreed with. She was basically like, “Everything you did here is wrong, and you need to change it all.” I said, “I know I’m not that wrong! I’m just gonna do it, put it out there.” I pretty much dismissed everything she said, and I sent out about two dozen queries to literary agents. Which, looking back, I probably didn’t write the query too well. I presented the book as a memoir about a suicide attempt rather than a story meant to help, you know. I think it scared off a lot of people. I got a few encouraging letters back, but mostly generic, “thanks but no thanks.” Then I had a conversation with another writer, and he told me, “Stop looking for agents. The whole publishing world is changing. Self-publish. Do it your way. The only thing that matters is the readers.” I had everything ready so I said, “You know what, I’m just gonna do it.” I self-published, did a Facebook post to about 100 people and let it go.

The feedback was absolutely overwhelming, way more than I expected. It started going word of mouth. It’s been out for about five months. And I haven’t done any advertising. I put stuff up on The Experience Project, a website, that’s all. I got an e-mail from a woman a while back who wrote she believes the book saved a teenage girl’s life, which was overwhelming to me. And another one I saw on a newspaper’s website. A friend forwarded a link to an article about suicide, and people were writing about my book in the comments section. And someone wrote they were researching books about suicide, found mine, gave it to their grandson, who was suicidal, and he came to his grandmother, crying and said he wanted to live and needed help. She wrote, “This book saved my grandson’s life.” That’s when it really kicked in, “OK, I have a responsibility now. If it is helping people, I’d better be doing this the right way.” I know with suicide prevention, there’s what’s called safe messaging. You have to be really careful. I didn’t have any of that in mind when I wrote the book. I wrote it as pure and clean as I could write it. When I started getting feedback that it’s changing lives, I said, “God, I hope I’ve done this right.” So I’ve asked for help from the suicide coalition to review it, let me know if anything sways from the guidelines of safe messaging. So far, no one’s thrown up any red flags. I keep going back to what that person said, “Pay attention to the readers.” I’ve gotten dozens of e-mails from people whom I’ve never met from different states, so heartfelt and sincere, so overwhelming to read. Strangers telling me that the book helped them, it’s changed their outlook on life, and that I need to keep writing. I can’t describe what that feels like.

The book isn’t out for free online, but can you buy and read it online?

On Amazon’s website, prime members can read it for free until the end of January. You can also buy a printed book from Amazon or download the Kindle version. It’s not in bookstores yet. I didn’t print 2,000 of them that are sitting in a warehouse somewhere. But I think if it were on a shelf, people would pick it up. I’m still working with the coalition. Once I get a thumbs up, I’m going to move forward with getting into stores.

If they said, “You need to be less explicit, you need to tone it down,” would you?

I keep referring back to the person who said, “Pay attention to the readers.” So far, I’ve gotten zero negative feedback. I would have to really weigh it. I’ve gone through pretty much everything I’ve written, poems, songs, even my photography. If you look at it from the perspective of being suicidal _ and I know what it feels like _ almost anything can be interpreted as too much. It really has to be very carefully crafted in order to not be taken the wrong way. I back that up 100 percent, but what I think is equally as important is honestly. If I were to speak to a group where members are struggling, I think it’s just as important for them to know I’ve been there. And yes, those thoughts of suicide are very, very real. In a sense, you have very little control over them. I think it’s important to acknowledge the darkness that goes with the light. You can’t just jump in and say, “There’s hope, let’s move forward.” For me, you have to identify with the darkness before you can truly see the light. I have a friend I wrote about in the book. And he’s a big character in it. And we were talking about whether I should talk about certain things when speaking to groups, and he said to me, “If we were 16 again, what would we want to hear to get better? If you were talking to yourself at 16, what do you think it would take for you to really listen?”

I think how I need to do it is to discuss my story in its raw truth, be myself and let people see the whole picture. It’s not just a suicide attempt that I survived, it’s life that I survived. I think that’s how I need to do it. I think there’s more credibility in that. It’s important to acknowledge the dark. If people reviewing the book see potential triggers, I hope they realize why they are there. The book shows the darkness, but it brings the light back into it, and ties it all together. You need both sides. I hope I get the chance to do that in speaking engagements as well.

Are you speaking?

I’ve been asked to. January will be my first one. It’s at a book store. There’s a school that is considering using the book in study. They like the book not just for its message but mostly for its literary value. I may have an opportunity to meet with students for an author Q & A afterward too. It would be irresponsible of me to speak with a younger audience about the book’s subject matter, though. I need to learn more about safe messaging, what to say, what not to say, then make it my own and move forward.

I prepared a few questions, but I’m going to ask them in pretty random order here. When I was looking at your work online, I also came across a post on another blog in July by a Craig Miller who wrote about the five best ways to die. Was that you?

Wow. It was not me. When I first put the book on Amazon, there’s a section on the book’s page that shows “people who viewed this book also viewed this,” and there was a book like, “How to kill yourself.” It kind of pissed me off. You’re at the mercy of Amazon algorithms. That’s why I put the middle initial  in my name, Craig A. Miller. No, I didn’t write that.

Is there a sense of pride in the experience somehow?

Attempting suicide?

Yes.

When I look at it, what I did, that I was fortunate enough to survive, I don’t feel any pride that I attempted suicide. I feel sad that it took me getting to that point to really turn around. I spent a lot of years talking myself out of it, trying to keep hope. I was always on that edge of, “Either my life is going to turn out really good or really bad.” It makes me sad for myself and for my family that attempting suicide was sort of what it took for me to step off that line. There’s no pride in the fact that I attempted suicide. But I do feel pride in the fact that I was able to move on and be able to learn from everything in my life, not just the suicide attempt, and be able to do something about it. I think the pride comes along the way in the healing process, of looking at everything, knowing that I survived the upbringing, the mental illness, sadness and hopelessness. I’m not necessarily surviving the suicide attempt but surviving all the things in my life. The healing process became the pride. Don’t get me wrong. I still wrestle with self-doubt quite often, but …

Not to that extent?

Not to that extent. In a healthy way. The self-doubt I have is almost like a tool. I don’t go into anything thinking I have it covered. The doubt makes me stay on my toes. In a way, I never let my guard down. I say I can do this, but it’s a healthy balance of pride and doubt. I don’t think it stops me from doing anything. It makes me do the things I do better.

Is there any way for people to avoid getting to that point in their life, a suicide attempt, to make changes?

Everyone has a different breaking point, a different bottom. I would hope that the message in the book and the work that people like me and you are doing to try and raise awareness, I would hope that our message could be received further upstream, people could start seeing things in a new way before things get so bad that they can’t see at all. That’s my intent. What I hope to do. Give that hope before it gets too bad for them. I think that’s what all of us as attempt survivors can bring. We’ve been there, gotten through it, especially attempt survivors who’ve done their healing. I think it’s our responsibility, in a sense, to give back.

Does society make that easy, talking openly about suicide?

I think at this point, it’s not very easy. It’s becoming more and more known. And “popular,” I guess, is a bad word, but the awareness of suicide is being presented by a lot more groups than in the past, especially since I was in high school. It’s primarily driven from the survivors’ standpoint, those left behind. I think it could use more attempt survivors. But there’s that side, where there’s a lot of fear that an attempt survivor could be seen as glamorizing the process. I can understand that. I think it needs to be done the right way. But a very, very strong message can be created by suicide attempt survivors. As equally as a survivor who has been left behind.

Has anyone said you’re glamorizing suicide?

No, knock on wood, no. But you can go into almost anything with that state of mind. You can look at artists, song lyrics, books and look at it in that sense if you wanted to. I was definitely nervous about that. I have this belief that helped me all along the way, getting it out of me. I had to get that negative stuff out of me. A lot of stuff was negative. Not in a driving way as in, “Go do this,” but a lot of dark emotions I expressed. I try to do the same with my photography. If I’m feeling blissful, I take photos of the sun and flowers. If I’m feeling depressed and it’s a gray day, raining for a week, I go take black-and-white’s of the fog. Some say it’s too sad and encourages depression, some say it’s beautiful. I think expressing oneself is extremely important in balancing emotions. Expressing appropriately

What would be inappropriate?

Well, some stuff out there is unreal. You look at some of the death metal bands and gore websites, all blood and guts, there are some pretty dark things on the internet. I don’t think people need to go that far. I think there is a lot of art that’s aimed at getting a reaction rather than trying to purge and express. There is a line where it sort of loses taste.

Did you use to like them?

Not necessarily.

Ideally, is there some way suicide should be discussed?

I don’t know, I think it’s just bringing it more mainstream. I would assume. It’s almost like a lot of things that were taboo years ago. I may be speaking out of line, but I would say gay and lesbian issues years ago were sort of buried and not talked about. Then you have the media and social media and channels like MTV that helped make it more acceptable. It’s gotten to a point where tolerance has gone way up. It can be openly discussed where years ago it couldn’t. You see people talking more openly. I think it’s gotten a lot more to the point where it may be more acceptable, which I applaud. But I would think that in the same respect something like suicide _ being one of those room-silencing words that make people just clam up and not know what to say _ I think if more awareness is brought to it, more understanding, people would get better about talking about it. Just like it was and is being done with gay and lesbian issues. It’s no longer this taboo thing. At least not everywhere.

But with homosexuality, they can say there’s a lot that’s good in it to be proud of. With suicide, there’s not a lot of great stuff around it. Or am I wrong?

Right, how do you find the good side of it? I think we need more awareness around it. People need to meet further upstream and get involved before it happens. But also I think it’s important, and I’m not sure if this gets me into trouble, but it’s important that we acknowledge that thinking about suicide, while it’s not OK, quote unquote, it’s part of who we are and it’s how dark it gets sometimes. If a person has stood on the edge of suicide, they’re not a bad person for thinking that way. They’re very hurt and very sick. And things can be done to help them. They shouldn’t be ashamed they thought of it, or cried themselves to sleep because they didn’t want to wake up the next morning. But it’s entered a lot of people’s minds, and there’s help for it. I think that’s where a lot of the room silence comes from, a stigma, a horrible thing, “You should be ashamed for even thinking about it.” A lot of people who’ve never really been there don’t understand.

What are you going to do next?

I’m going to try to speak. The response I’ve gotten from this book is overwhelming. I feel a responsibility to keep pushing it. I want to make sure I do it in the right way. Then I want to write more books. “This is How it Feels” speaks more about how I got through my struggles and how I see life moving forward. The biggest question I get from readers is, “How did you do it? How did you get to the person you are now?” A lot people that know me now had no idea I had this kind of history. And that, I think, is what my next book should be about. How did I heal? What did I do? I think I owe the readers that book.

Who else are you?

Well, I’m the typical answer. A dad, a husband, a coworker. I’m just a regular guy. But I have a passion for things. Whatever it is I’m doing, I have to give 100 percent. That comes from my past. I have to make this life worth it. I have to find what success means to me. I don’t let up on that. That’s an every day, every night thing for me. I’m constantly thinking of what I can do to better myself, to find what success means to me. To move to that next level. I don’t stop thinking about stuff like that. And that sort of bleeds into everything, whether it be photography, poetry, writing, I give 100 percent of myself. I have to. It’s like I have to make everything worth it. To me. Not to everyone else, just to me.

Talking with Tom Greensides

Tom Greensides is yet another of the outspoken Canadians who make me wonder what’s going on up there above the border. We spoke this week, and he gave me a good introduction to the surgery called deep brain stimulation, which is the first treatment that has managed to keep his depression at bay.

It wasn’t the easiest procedure, but he pursued it tenaciously, even after being turned down by doctors. “The most uncomfortable part was when they drilled holes in my skull,” Tom says. “It’s like having a tooth drilled. I don’t think you’re as old as I am. When I was young, dentists drilled your teeth and it just about shook you out of the chair.”

Here, he talks about his friends’ teasing about the treatment, his new attitude toward mental health and the modest but important role a coffee shop called Tim Horton’s has played in his everyday motivation.

Who are you?

I’m 66 years old. I was diagnosed with depression when I was in my 50s. Up till then, I had managed to do whatever to get by, but it was later in life that it really hit me. One day, I ended up at the doctor’s office because all I could do was cry. I used to be an eastern Canada sales manager for plant nutrients, and you can’t make sales calls with tears running down your face. The doctor said “depression.” It was the first time I had heard that word applied to me, and I’ve been battling it ever since.

Prior to having the DBS surgery, I needed to supply a list of my medications. I was shocked when I went to the drug store to get it, and it was 35 pages long. I had tried just about everything. I tried two courses of ECT for a total of 29 treatments. Most things worked for me in the beginning, but shortly, three months, whatever, I was back in a mess again. And then in 2005, I started really seriously thinking about suicide. I started a note in January 2005 to my family about what I was going to do and trying to make sure they understood it wasn’t their fault. Finally, the 24th of May, I walked away from home early in the morning and took an overdose that ended up leaving me unconscious under a tree for 30 hours. When I came to, I crawled to an area where I was found. That led to the hospital, where I started to get real help.

I really believe the only thing one leaves in life is their family, and I’ve always been very
protective. I wanted to make that investment in my family and convinced myself that, by taking myself out of their lives, they would all be better off. During my hospitalization, the doctor pointed out to me that the worst thing I could ever have done was commit suicide; my family would never, ever recover from it. I had thought it through, and I figured suicide would be like any other death. We’re all going to die, so I thought they’d have a funeral, and a week later they’d all go back to work. They’d miss me for a while, then go on back to their lives. It was my new psychiatrist who convinced me that this was absolutely not true. They would not recover. I made a commitment with him that, if I ever felt suicidal again, I’d go to the hospital and get help.That did happen twice in the next year or two, but I started learning ways to deal with it myself and not to do it.

I learned to do things like go for a walk. A big effort for me. Depression wants to make one
spend a lot of time in bed. And many times, I’ve been laying down, thinking, “This can’t go on, I’ve had enough,” and getting up either to do something about ending it, or doing something to not end it. On those occasions, I generally put on my walking shoes and walk for a couple miles. In Canada we have donut shops called Tim Horton’s. Where I live now is halfway between two Tim Horton’s, so I can walk about 45 minutes, have a coffee and go home. And each time I get back, all of a sudden “ending it all” is not important anymore. I had to learn tricks like that, doing things even though I didn’t want to. I learned how to take the first step. And once I put my boots on, I might as well step outside. Once outside, I might as well start walking to the corner. And so on. I’ve learned to take life in very small steps right now and not worry about the big picture. This approach helped me to survive until I got the DBS implant.

This September, I took a job driving a school bus. I love the interaction with the young people. I love having to get up in the morning to do something. And without the DBS, I would never have been able to do that. So I consider myself a pretty fortunate person. We live in what is called the Niagara region, and apparently I’m the only person in the region with a DBS implant.

How do you know?

Just by talking with my doctors. It’s still rather experimental. I think one big reason I received the surgery was, maybe, because of my age. They had no experience with people as old as I am.

Tell me how you came across DBS and decided to pursue it.

I looked for answers, and whatever I saw online or in the news, I followed up on. There was a treatment, I think vagus nerve stimulation. It was only available in the U.S.A. and was incredibly expensive. I rejected it. Finally, I found out about DBS, and it looked good. I talked to my psychiatrist, and he at first advised against having it, then we both studied it. He said, “You know, you need to go for it.” He realized how bad things were for me, just struggling to stay alive. So I just kept going for a walk, a little bit at a time, pushing for it. The surgery is done in Toronto. The head of the department was speaking one day to local health care professionals. I showed up at the meeting uninvited, and at the end I talked to him. He agreed to meet with me and started the assessment. I was turned down, but I kept pushing until I finally got it. A matter of being your own advocate.

When did you get it done?

Sept 14, 2011.

How does it work?

I have had two electrodes implanted in section 25 of my brain. Those are hooked up to a
pacemaker-type device implanted in my chest. There’s a battery in it, not unlike a heart
pacemaker, called a neurostimulator. It can be set at a variety of settings. Mine is set at eight volts. They increase the settings as required. I had the last increase about three weeks ago. I’m sort of a medical miracle. I have had skin cancer since 1982, and the last bout was this summer. I needed radiation on the back of my head, and no one is sure what happened, but it knocked me into a bout of depression. They increased the voltage, and it worked very well. I went in three weeks ago tomorrow, and the doctor checked it all out and said, “Its working,” and I said, “I can’t go on like this.” He increased it a full volt. My wife was with me; I think she didn’t trust me to go alone any place. When we walked out of the hospital and within 15 minutes, I remember the exact spot outside the hospital, I said to my wife, “Something’s changed. I feel different.” It happens that quickly. I guess the take-home message for me is, there are a lot of people, including me, who wonder what causes depression: “What did I do to cause depression? Did I eat the wrong foods, work too hard, whatever, whatever, whatever.” I guess what’s been really helpful is to understand that if they can stick two electrodes in my brain and relieve the depression, it’s likely that I didn’t cause it. It’s a chemical imbalance, or whatever. It has nothing to do with anything I did in the past. My wife always wonders to herself whether she did something to cause it or can do something to cure it. And after that, obviously, the answer is no. It’s been a huge relief for me. I love to work hard. I regularly get up at 5 a.m. and, when I was employed, I used to start at 5 a.m. to go do things while other people were still sleeping, and I just loved it. A lot of people said, “You overdid it.” I did a lot of volunteer work, and I loved that, too. “Overdoing it” had nothing to do with it.

What caused it?

I had a grandfather who suffered from depression. It was likely a genetic connection. It missed my mother’s generation, but two of my cousins suffer from depression, making three of us in this generation. So I guess if anything causes it, it’s being born in the wrong family. And I don’t know about you, but I didn’t have a choice.

What have people noticed about you? What changes?

People can’t believe the huge difference in me. We went to a dinner party with a number of
people a few weeks ago, and jokingly one of them said, “We’re going to take the battery out of your device because you’re enjoying things too much.” My wife really, really notices the difference. And when it wasn’t working after my radiation treatments, she could tell.

How has all of this been for her?

It’s been extremely difficult in two respects. One, it’s adjusting your life to someone who has depression, who doesn’t have any fun, doesn’t want to go anyplace, everything’s a struggle. Then all of a sudden he wants to do things, go places. So there have been two big adjustments for her.

You mentioned that your family is your only legacy. But when you look back at your
thinking at the time, that they would hold your funeral and then move on, does that
thinking make sense now?

No, it’s absolutely incorrect thinking. I’ve done a lot of volunteer work. One thing I did recently was speak at a suicide awareness walk in St. Catharines. It is definitely one of the most difficult things I have done. I spoke as a survivor of suicide, and I was speaking to the victims left behind by suicide. It was unbelievable. There were about 300 people there. How much pain and agony was in that room!

And yet I understand that suicide has nothing to do with dying. In my opinion, it only has to do with trying to relieve the mental pain, the anguish, the anxiety. Most people who are so down and in such a position that they want to commit suicide can’t really appreciate what the full impact will be on the ones they leave behind.

Do you think the people in that room can understand that point of view?

Some did. That was my purpose in speaking, to provide them with some relief. To tell them
that the person who committed suicide hadn’t done it to get even or hurt anyone, it was just because they just couldn’t live with the mental pain any longer. And it’s so hard to explain that to somebody who hasn’t been there. I’m not super religious or whatever, but I am a Christian. In religion, they talk about doing the right things to get everlasting life. One thing that terrified me was to get stuck with everlasting life. And I’ve not told anybody that. That’s one thing you’ve got out of me.

You thought that all your life?

No, just since I was depressed. But I understand listening to the minister speak, and the first thing that pops into my mind is, “Why the hell would I want that?”

If your younger self could meet your older self now, would it understand?

Not at all. I would not have been good at it. I’m almost embarrassed at how I handled people, before my illness, who were suffering from mental illness. If I walked down the street and saw someone talking to themself or whatever, I would try to avoid them. And if today I saw them, I’d walk up and say, “Good morning” or whatever. I’ve learned so much. It’s too bad I had to be so old to learn.

You said the many treatments you’ve tried didn’t last long, beyond a few months. Are you worried about the DBS lasting?

I worry about that on a daily basis. Now, the success rate of DBS is over 80 percent with people like me. And my doctor in Toronto tells me, “Don’t give up, we know it will work.” And those electrodes have four positions they can select, and a variety of voltages from five to about 10 and a half, so there are many variations. He said, “If it doesn’t work, we just haven’t found the right combination.”

What about the possible downsides, the cost, the pain, etc?

I have no idea about cost because it was covered under the government health plan. It’s not an issue in Ontario. The pain is like having serious dental work. You have no feeling in your brain, so the only issue was the halo that held me in place. They froze various portions of my skull, and I won’t say it was painful, but the most uncomfortable part was when they drilled holes in my skull. It’s like having a tooth drilled. I don’t think you’re as old as I am. When I was young, dentists drilled your teeth and it just about shook you out of the chair. The nurse knew it would be troublesome, so she held my hand, helped me get through it. The pain wasn’t bad at all. And when they stick things in your brain, you don’t feel it.

You were awake the whole time?

You have to be. To establish where section 25 is, they have a laptop showing me different
kinds of pictures. They had devices in my brain measuring the impulses from what I saw on the laptop. The surgery started at about 9 a.m., and around 9:30 they started probing in my brain. Finally at about 1 o’clock, they said, “I think we can insert the electrodes.” Now, I expect I was anesthetized somewhat. But certainly I couldn’t speak and had to do things like move my hand to say “Yes” or “No,” because the devices in my brain, when I tried to speak, created static on the machines behind me. Oh, it’s sort of like space-age science fiction. It’s really hard for a fellow like me, who was educated before computers were even invented, to understand what was happening.

And yet you were really tenacious to get it.

Yes.

And your family was OK with it?

Yes. My family’s been involved ever since the suicide attempt. I’ve kept my family fully apprised of what I was doing. The day of my surgery, my son actually booked off work, and he took me to the hospital and stayed with my wife for the day until I was back in the hospital room at night.

What about right after your attempt? Were you so open? Some people, including myself for a while, keep it so secret and quiet.

Before I was sick, I used to do a lot of volunteer work, president of the local chamber of
commerce, president of the Ontario Fruit and Vegetable Growers Association, all sorts of things like that. All involved public speaking. After my suicide attempt, my counselor at the hospital said it would be really good if I joined the CMHA speakers bureau. I said, “OK,” but I didn’t do anything about it. The next time she said, “Did you do anything?” “No.” Finally, after three tries, I called CMHA and ended up going up there. And for me, it was one of the best things I ever did for my own therapy; publicly speaking about it and being honest. I don’t know how many times I’ve spoken. It’s been well over 100 times. I’ve never had a bad reaction. To me, that shows the acceptance of people if you can explain your story. And that’s been really, really good for me.

Were there any worries about facing the same people that you had spoken to before in your earlier roles?

I never thought about it for some reason. I’m from a small community called Grimsby, and two years ago, they had an event called Lunch and Learn. I was asked to speak, and they did a poster up that said “Tom Greensides,” and I’m well-known enough in the community that people knew me. And they packed the room. And it didn’t bother me at all. Because, I guess, you can’t hide it.

So the only way, for me, is to deal with it, be up front, talk about it, and I guess the benefit of speaking to a group is they’re committed and listen and you can tell your story. And you know, we have some people we know who suffer from mental illness. We had a mother and young daughter at our house for coffee a couple weeks ago, and they were very reluctant to admit they suffer. My wife and I encourage them not to be reluctant. It’s certainly not going to change overnight. The young person is in her early 20s and longs to continue her education. We are helping her to get involved in our local university which has a good record of working with people with mental illness, letting them set their own pace.

How about the questions people ask you? Anything striking?

I had to have surgery once for something totally unrelated. At the hospital in Hamilton, the doctor I had for the pre-op noticed all the antidepressant medications I was taking. He said, “All you need to do is throw all of these away and take vitamin E.” And I’ve heard that from a few people. Not when I’ve spoken, but I’ve had a handful of people tell me. But I find the hardest to deal with is health care professionals who are not involved with mental illness.

Why?

I don’t know. I don’t know. At the mental health department here in St. Catharines, the first
objective of the new executive director is to train the rest of the staff in mental illness. And I’d agree it’s a big, big need. But no, I’ve never had a question when I spoke that I wouldn’t answer. You know, I guess if you tell your story, people are very sensitive to what you’re dealing with. But to do that, you have to be honest with your story.

Why would someone be dishonest?

You gloss over, minimize, whatever, I don’t know. Because it’s not an issue for me. And you know Wendy, and Wendy certainly is very honest.

What’s up with Canada? People seem more accepting up there than in the U.S.

I don’t have enough experience to really comment. But a lot of people like Wendy and so on have been working to try and elevate people’s understanding of mental illness. And again, I have enough trouble keeping up with everything in Canada.

What more can be done about the stigma around suicide?

I think we need to keep doing what we’re doing and do more of it. It’s not a sprint, it’s a journey. The lady I mentioned earlier, she has an awful time with her mother who keeps telling her to just fix it: “So you’re feeling bad, just carry on.” I’ve been there. You can’t do that. So not everybody up here is understanding. But I think we’re working at it. We certainly haven’t done the job completely.

How about the media, public discourse, should that change and how?

I’ve found the media here very supportive of mental illness. I sent you articles from The St.
Catharines Standard. They did a whole week’s worth on mental illness, major whole-page
articles. I guess I wouldn’t be at all critical of the media here.

I’m also thinking about movies, TV, books, portrayals, etc.

I think they’ve become more sensitive about it, but I don’t think the deal’s all done, either.

I want to go back to the question about the time just after your attempt and how open you were. You talked about speaking publicly, but what about speaking with your family? Did you ever keep it quiet at first?

No. I couldn’t keep it quiet. “Where’s Dad?” “He’s in the hospital.” “Which one? Where in the hospital? Why is he in the psychiatric ward?” You know, you couldn’t hide it, and my wife was very honest with them. She explained it exactly. And they came, and we talked and visited and so on. I don’t know how you’d keep something like that quiet. And if you think you’re keeping it quiet, you’re likely only fooling yourself and not anyone around you.

I tend to think that a lot of mental health professionals are drawn to the field because of their own experience, but they don’t dare mention it.

My psychiatrist congratulates me on my speaking. He says, “I have all these letters after my name, but I don’t begin to understand mental illness like you do. And you have such a valuable part to play because you’ve been there.” Maybe I’m being really lucky, being encouraged by a professional.

I like to end with the question, Who else are you?

A grandfather, a father. But I’ve always had a strong motivation to be involved. And now, I
guess, I’ve become almost supersensitive about the issues around mental illness. And I work as a volunteer trying to improve the quality of life for people who struggle with mental issues, personality issues or whatever. I guess we all go in this world only once, and very few of us are allowed to be perfect when we do that. So we need to be sensitive to people’s flaws and not judge them because of that. I volunteer on a crisis line, and I find it tremendously rewarding to talk to someone struggling for whatever reason and try to bring a bit of comfort to their life. I guess I have changed a lot because of it.

With the crisis line, did your personal experience matter, or did you even bring it up?

Not at all. They consider that an advantage because I can work from a point of understanding, because some volunteers have not been where I’ve been.

How do you protect yourself from getting too overwhelmed or too involved or such?

It’s not an issue yet, but it’s something I’m watching. And at the crisis line, there are professionals there, and those professionals monitor people like me, to make sure that it doesn’t become overwhelming, They’re prepared to help us, so there’s a bit of a backup there as well.

Care to share your notes and journals?

There’s been quite a bit of research into the suicide notes and journals left by people who kill themselves, but the same level of interest hasn’t extended yet to the notes and journals of people who tried to kill themselves and lived. Now one well-known researcher says he’s open to taking a look.

David Lester, after suggestions from myself and at least one other person featured on this blog, asked whether I’d be able to help find him some of these notes and journals. If you’re interested in sharing, David says he’d prefer to have any submissions via scan and e-mail, Word document and e-mail or the more traditional photocopy and post. Before you’re tempted to send a crate of journals, I should add that he most likely would focus on  writings from the time or times you were in crisis. You should also specify whether you’d want your name or certain identifying information to be made public. I don’t know how the materials would be used. (I had suggested comparing the word usage in the writings of those who died versus the usage in the writings of those who lived, for example.)

Some of his contact information is available at David’s website.

Talking with Arnold Thomas

Arnold Thomas may have been the most ornery of the people I’ve spoken with for this blog, but that’s in a good way. He properly punishes you for asking a yes-or-no question by giving the one-word answer and stopping there. Over the phone, I could practically hear him smiling. We spoke last month.

I came across him in a recent article in Indian Country Today about his work in Native American ceremonies and with military veterans. The article says that two years after his father killed himself, Arnold put a hunting rifle under his chin and pulled the trigger. It left him blind. For the first two years of his recovery, he was unable to speak. One night after his first surgery, he says in the article, “I was so frustrated that I packed my bags in the middle of the night, grabbed my mother’s car keys, went out to the car and started it up. My mother came running out, and she was crying. She said, ‘What are you doing?'”

He has since become an incredibly busy public speaker. He draws on his experience to connect with the veterans who continue to come home from Iraq and Afghanistan. “Trauma is where you lost your innocence,” he says. “And there’s different ways that people lose their innocence.”

Please introduce yourself. Who are you?

The quick response is, I could send you all this information by e-mail.

But I like to ask questions! And make you talk.

Well, that ain’t no fun! Oh geez, I have all kinds of hats. Son, grandson, great-grandson, you know, husband, father, grandfather, great-grandfather, great-great-grandfather, brother, uncle … I’m Shoshone and Paiute and part Irish. Last October there was an ordination that was performed, and I was ordained as a holy one by my elders and ceremonial leaders out here in the West.

What does that mean?

As it was explained to me by one of my elders, it’s that as an individual, we live a certain standard of spiritual life that is in accordance with spiritual and natural laws. And he states that everyone is holy. And sacred. I’m also the first-ever chaplain of Native American faith tradition as far as I know in the world right now.

Military chaplain, or overall?

Overall. There are chaplains, and there are chaplains who are Native American, but none that have claimed to be from the Native American faith tradition.

What do you do?

As a chaplain? Well, I conduct various traditional Native American ceremonies for the veterans medical center in Salt Lake City. I conduct a traditional sweat lodge ceremony, traditional pipe ceremony, as well as other ceremonies for veterans and family members of veterans.

I came to you because of your suicide work. Are the ceremonies related to that?

The other thing I am is, I am the business owner of a motivational consulting firm and offer various presentations throughout the world addressing the issue of suicide. So yes to your question regarding how does my work with the veterans population intertwine with the topic of suicide. Because of my own suicide attempt and losing family and friends to suicide, all the experiences have brought me to this point where I am able to help individuals who have experienced traumatic experiences.

How did you get into this work?

Well, it chose me. Yeah. I began volunteering, speaking with youth in a juvenile detention center in Salt Lake City, and after graduate school I created my own proposal and was able to get some funding to create a web page and complete an autobiographical video and my first CD and brochures and marketed myself, and that’s where it began. And it’s taken me, from that first conference, to countless communities and throughout the world.

How many years has it been?

’99. 1899!

That’s a decent amount of time. Have you noticed attitudes changing about it, in talking about it?

Yes.

How so?

Well, like the one article I sent you from Indian Country Today, I don’t want to say it’s a prime example of making efforts to eliminate the stigma that surrounds suicide. I think the manner in which I have presented this issue and topic over the years has allowed individuals to want to discuss the various experiences that cause them trauma and want to discuss some of the loss that they experienced because of suicide. And I think because I’ve been able to speak about this issue, it’s allowed others to be comfortable and OK about talking about their losses and their own depression and grief.

When you first started, how you feel and how did people respond?

I was scared as hell. Really nervous. Actually, the individual who encouraged me was a motivational speaker and he went gold at, I think, one of the Olympics for freestyle ski jumping. Yeah. And so he took me under his wing when I first began and he coached me along. It was pretty nerve-wracking.

What was his best advice, the most useful?

He just said, “Tell your story. And be OK with it.” That was back in the early ’90s.

How did people respond?

I had a captive audience, because a lot of these youth were locked up for petty crimes they had committed. And I think more than anything, you know, to me over the years it’s a story of resilience. As people, we all get down and we all fall down, and the beauty of it is, we have the ability to bounce back. And I’d like to think that, I’m an optimist, I like to believe that everyone has that ability, when they do fall down that they can bounce back. But unfortunately, for different reasons, not everyone does.

There is a chief, he’s passed away, he was a chief of chiefs for the Six Nations Confederacy. He said, “You choose your path in life, and when you choose your path in life, the creator will give you your mission on that path.”

But why this path?

Why this path? The same reason why you choose your path. I’ve heard elders speak at traditional tribal elder gatherings. They say you chose your family, you chose to be here in this time in history, we continue to choose. Sometimes when we’re children, there are experiences that happen to us and we have no control over but when we are adults have that ability to choose. I know some people who aren’t able to because of their bipolar or whatever, some different mental illnesses. And so we have the ability to choose where we are now. The way I look at it is, we have the ability to choose how we want to work with what’s happened in our past, how to deal with those experiences to make it a little better today and into the future. So we’re looking at that statement, we choose our path. When I say creator, I don’t mean God but the one who created everything back to the beginning. The creator will surround us with the people we need to be surrounded with to reach our full potential as a spiritual being and give us the tools we need.

Do you have the right people and the right tools now?

I believe I’ve always had them. I guess the way I look at it is, all my experiences helped cultivate me into the spiritual being I am today. I believe I have everything I need to make my life how it is.

I read that it took a long time for you to be able to speak. And I’m wondering how you got that back.

(Pause.) So, who do you think is going to win the presidential debate tonight? … As a Native American, I guess the way I look at it is, our spiritual faith tradition, it’s not religious, you know, and you look at the indigenous people, their spiritual lifeways are governed by natural and spiritual laws. And in religions, there are beliefs that men created, and you look at the first part of the Bible that says man has dominion over everything. And for the indigenous people of North America, it’s like that understanding that man has ultimate power has caused great devastation to our earth and our lands. That mentality has raped and almost destroyed our spiritual belief set that originated from the mother earth.

How would that lead to suicide?

OK, so how does that lead to suicide? Well, how has that impacted the indigenous people of North America? It goes right back into that doctrine of discovery, that, number one, you’re not people if you do not believe in a Christian god, therefore you’re like the rabbit and the deer, so we’re going to control you, we’re gonna kill you. So to the point where the language was stripped from tribal people, and our tribal languages connect us with the natural elements and natural laws and spiritual laws and intertwines us with everything in life that we know. And so when your language is stripped from you, and you’re forced to speak another language and believe in a foreign god, it’s a pretty difficult task. And we’ve seen how it has devastated people’s minds and culture as a whole.

Do you remember why you were so quick to jump to what you thought was the solution, meaning suicide?

It goes back into that mentality, that belief that suicide is a valid solution. And it goes back many generations, back to my great-grandfathers and great-great-grandfathers and what occurred with them, you know, during the wars with the calvary and the military. And how eventually they were forced to give up and then forced into concentration camps and forced to give up their language, their traditions and ceremonies and way of life. So when an individual is down and depressed, sometimes what other options do you have? So what indigenous spiritual ways of life teach us is, life is a gift, life is precious, be thankful for what you have. So when all that was taken away from my forefathers over time, it had an impact on who they were. And so there’s still suppression, oppression that still occurs towards indigenous people in the world, and so for me, being young, you know, there was some of that rage in there, there was some of that unresolved grief that was passed down from generation to generation.

The last person I talked with for this said a lot of suicide comes from injustice.

One of my uncles explained, we are people of memory. And you really look at that understanding of genetic composition, all the genes that comprise who we are, so there’s different aspects of who we are that need to be healed, going back many years. And here we are, we’re given the opportunity to process through this information and memories from our bloodlines, and so we’re given this opportunity to process through it and to heal.

… So who do you think is gonna win the presidential race?

Let me ask about the veterans. Do you have to talk to them a different way, take a different approach?

I’m dealing with my traditions. I’ve made it clear that I’m not conducting a Christian spiritual service, made it clear and they’re aware this is a traditional ceremony I conduct, and I’m going to maintain it in the way it was passed down to me. A lot of veterans are aware, a lot of Native American veterans, a lot of black veterans, of various populations that attend the sweat lodge, the ceremonies I conduct. And they’re aware of the history. And I mentioned earlier that all the experiences I’ve been through, and my people, everything we’ve been through, for myself I’ve been able to process through these different experiences and make my effort to heal, to forgive, number one, myself and number two, my father and number three, my grandfather, all the way going back to what happened between the calvary and my tribal people. And going back to forgiving some of the first peoples who came to this land. Yes, they had good intentions, but my belief is they went about it in the wrong way in that they tried to force the people into believing in their way. And so I had to go back and forgive. So I wouldn’t be walking around angry.

You know, what you said is what some people say about Iraq and Afghanistan …

Yeah, I’m slowly working my way up to it. You get the picture. And some of the combat vets I speak with, they don’t agree with what they did over there.

Is that what messed them up, or what they think messed them up?

To me, war is not a common experience. I look at that as trauma, you know, and what’s trauma, they call it PTSD, it was explained to me this way. Trauma is where you lost your innocence. And there’s different ways that people lose their innocence. Take a soldier. You go into war and are shot at. That’s not what you do on a daily basis. Get shot at, people die. At what point do you stop enjoying life? So that’s the understanding, the loss of innocence. One of the teachings is, we must enjoy life. And we must give thanks for what we have. My elders told me, if you’re not enjoying life, you’re not thankful. You’re out of balance. Something’s going on. They went on to explain that, what’s going on, so you go back to that trauma, where was innocence lost. And you go back and look at that, what experiences were there, did you have that space to express your emotions and thoughts, did you have that chance to forgive and let go. Not forgetting that experience but letting yourself be OK with that so it doesn’t have power over you and paralyze you. Sometimes the memories are triggered by different dates during the year.  We gather the memories through various experiences, and they can be triggered at different times of the year. Also, the memories can surface up in our dreams. So he says all people have the ability to reason unless you’re grieving. So, what is it you’re grieving? Then once we begin to address those issues of loss, our understanding that life is beautiful, is a gift, you know, where did that stop? Work with it and heal.

The people you work with, do they ever get angry with you?

Yeah.

Why?

What has been told to me and the way I look at it is, a veteran is a warrior. And who’s a warrior? A warrior is the one that carries the bag of bones of his or her ancestors on his back. The bones represent the traditions, the language, the ceremonies, the people’s way of a spiritual life. The warrior is standing up for the community. And what the community’s beliefs are. And to me, you know, looking at that warrior, these soldiers, when they enter the military they’re signing their life away. And they’re trained to think and react, and there’s an emotional aspect that’s taken out from who they are. And what I noticed working with veterans and soldiers is that some of them enter the military to avoid being placed in correctional facilities, some joined because their family’s in poverty, and others joined because of military family loyalty. And so oftentimes there’s unresolved emotional issues that some veterans carry with them from pre-military experiences that haven’t been dealt with. So with the combat veterans, in addition to those premilitary experiences or trauma, now they have combat trauma added to that. And so oftentimes some of the veterans get upset with me because of some of their own issues rise to the surface and they don’t want to deal with it.

But then what do you do? What happens?

What do I do? I listen to them. And just like you, ask questions. And listen more. And if I’m working with a veteran who’s not from my faith tradition, I’m sensitive to their religious spiritual beleifs, and if it’s a veteran that is seeking guidance from me as a chaplain from my faith tradition, I’ll offer prayers and use certain ceremonial instruments and items and herbs to help them with the healing process.

On NPR, they aired an eight or nine-minute piece on the work I do with veterans.

(He asks why I attempted, and I tell him about it.)

The training I’ve been through as a spiritual leader, some people call me the medicine man. My education background in psychology, the chaplaincy, all that training just makes we want to go deep. I’m always looking at processing through why, how come. I don’t spend my whole day doing that because I’m constantly working with people like yourself, people in the community, people outside the state, and for me, it makes me process through and find words where certain thoughts and emotions are because people want answers, right? So oftentimes I want to talk about the importance of water and all the different teachings that come from water and do that for a whole hour, and I have related it to the sanctity of life. As I told one of my mentors, I’m tired of talking about suicide! That’s all they want me to do, is tell my story!

Not to be pompous, but as a professional, I’ve been doing this since 1999. When I was at the height, I was speaking six times a day in a city in different schools. So I’ve been on TV, on radio, some really remote regions of the world. They say, “We’ve got 30,000 listeners” and I’m like, “OK.” At a certain point in the year I’ll talk to some of my mentors, and I am reminded it’s not about me,  there’s a lot of messages in there. It’s about bouncing back. It’s about resilience. They want to hear that. They want to have hope, have faith.

You saw me on the web page, I’ve been through a lot of surgeries to reconstruct my face. It was a long time, a year and a half, where I was not able to communicate so people could understand me. I had to use a notepad. A frustrating time. 18 or 19 years old and having to deal with the guilt, the shame of a failed suicide attempt, that we don’t talk about as people. The grief, losing the eyesight, also dealing with the loss, you know, of being unable to speak. So. A very trying time. To be honest, back then I didn’t foresee myself ever being able to speak again. But with patience and … Patience is a word I have now, but then the emotional anguish was excruciating. And you’ve been there. And there’s nothing to do to make it better. Waiting it out. And especially when you’re not able to talk to anybody about it. So, with patience and prayers from family and friends and music, I love music, and I’ll make an effort to figure out what my life was gonna be. Somewhere in there some hope, some faith came forth. I moved to the city and began attending the school for the blind.

The counselor I initially saw at the blind center, he’s now the director of the whole state, he said, “I’m letting you know there’s only two things you can’t do. You will not be able to drive independently or read printed material independently.” There’s other ways to accomplish those tasks. But he said anything else you want to do in life is possible.

You must have believed him.

Well hell, what else can you do when you’re blind and depressed?

You make a good point. You talk about this over and over. Tell me about the rest of you. Who else are you?

(Pause.) Sorry, my dogs are barking. I love music, so I’m a musician. I have 30 CDs out …

30?

Three! So far. My life, when I’m not conducting ceremonies, which is very rare, I attend other ceremonies. I enjoy attending ceremonies and activities. I enjoy movies, being out on the land, in the mountains, I enjoy going out and gathering the roots that we use for ceremonies. I enjoy being on the road a lot. I get to learn a lot of historical information about sites, land, information about different cities. Yeah. So I enjoy history.

I don’t know how you could live in New York! At least it’s home.

Anything to add?

No, nothing right now. From the first time I began speaking about my experience, it’s really evolved into a presentation when I do speak. It’s really evolved into something I never thought it would. I attribute that to one’s willingness to work on themselves and be open. And not allowing pain to move you to the next place in life. Too often we allow pain to be the motivator to move us to the next place in life. But to allow enlightenment to move us to that next place in life. The reason why I say that is, when I do a presentation, oftentimes individuals, I guess, had no idea how to take the presentation because they think that all suicide prevention presentations are depressing and have that heaviness to them, you know. And I’ve done enough research and traveling and working with people that when I do work with people, it’s more grounded in spirituality, entertained with humor. Everything I speak of is all connected together. The presentations often are about life.

Talking with Janice Sorensen

I was happy to find another support for group for suicide attempt survivors, this time in Massachusetts. I came across the Alternatives to Suicide Peer Support Groups while looking over the schedule of the recent Alternatives conference, a national gathering of mental health peer support workers. So maybe the idea will grow.

Janice Sorensen was one of the presenters. Here, she talks about her own experience, her artistic response to her mother’s multiple attempts and how a diverse community has made the support groups work. “We want to find the balance between giving people a space to touch that despair and share what it is like to be in it, without making it a horror circus for someone who may be there for the first time or who may be feeling vulnerable themselves,” she says.

We spoke shortly before a massive storm hit the East Coast last week, and the posting of our conversation has been a little delayed.

Who are you?

I’m Janice Sorensen. I’m actually navigating that question at this very moment. I recently left the job I was at for a number of years, with the Western Mass Recovery Learning Community. I didn’t realize until I left what a huge part of my identity that job was. Which I think is, or can be, true for a lot of people, identifying with the work they do. Let’s see, what else. I am an artist and take any opportunity to transcribe whatever it is I’m processing in my life onto canvas or wood or glass or paper. Right now, I have a body of work called “Palimpsests in Paint.” And what I’m doing is purchasing previously painted canvases _ in other words, other people’s paintings _ at tag sales and thrift shops, and I am painting over them, allowing some of the original painting to come through. I use these underpaintings to inform my palate and the direction I take with each piece. It’s based on the, you know, the original sheepskin, what do you call it, parchment, that some of the ancient and the illuminated manuscripts were written on. The material became more valuable than the content of the document, so people would decide which documents were less important and would use those and either erase them or just write directly on top of them. So what I’m doing is a little uncomfortable for me. It’s actually very uncomfortable for me when I consider the idea of someone ever knowing that I painted over their image. I spent a lot of time thinking about whether to credit the “underartist” because I do leave some of the image coming through, but I think I am chicken-shitting my way through that one, and at this point, I’m not doing it. I would be mortified if someone ever knew I had painted over his or her piece. So there’s the discomfort that I’m doing something that feels, in some strange way, “wrong.” But it’s kind of a safe way to struggle with a dialectic. It’s not really a great sin. And there’s something bizarre about declaring, you know, what appears to be a mass-produced image of, like, an Italian canal gondola scene, or a muddy _ to my eye _ overworked still life, there’s something interesting in having a bit of power to say, “I declare you unworthy. You’re gone. You are more valuable to me as workable canvas.” I’m sort of embarrassed to say those words, but again, it’s a way to flirt with that kind of dialectic in a place with no stakes. No one’s ever gonna know.

Unless you get famous.

Yeah, that’s true. So yeah, that’s what I’m working on right now in addition to doing suicide prevention work and other consulting work in the field of mental health recovery.

Where should I go with the questions? The support group group or how you got here?

You decide.

Tell me how you got to this point.

OK. I was raised in a household with a woman who had multiple suicide attempts during my childhood, my mother. She attempted maybe six or seven times. And it had a huge impact on me, needless to say. It’s what I thought you did. I thought it was just what people did. When I had a bad day in home ec in sixth grade, I came home and took a bottle of aspirin. That’s what I did. It seemed like a perfectly normal thing to have done. And growing up with my mom also set me up to think on my feet, which I’m actually glad about. I was, with a certain frequency, having to make life-and-death decisions on my mother’s behalf. So, when I was 18, I had my first real serious suicide attempt and was very fortunate that the night watchman _ I had parked my car in a business district where I was sure there would be no passing cars at that hour, the wee hours of that morning _ the watchman saw the brake light of my car go on because I had passed out and slid down in the seat, and he called the police. The officer who was supposed to be on the other side of town was visiting his girlfriend minutes away. And my life was spared. One interesting aspect of the attempt was, at the time, I was a fundamental, evangelical, born-again Christian, and, frankly, I was thrilled I was going to see God. I sang myself to sleep, which certainly feels problematic to me now.

Now that I have kids, I have fully and completely declared that suicide is not an option. And certainly I’m grateful for that commitment once the despair has passed. I’m also very aware of the fact that my life moves in cycles. And when I was younger and things were horrible, I didn’t know that the way life works is that things get better. They may get worse again, but then they do get better again too. It took a number of years before I realized the pattern. Now I know when I’m in the absolute lowest place that I will be happy again. For a long time, it was my mantra that “It always gets better.” And, yet, there are times that I am absolutely livid, furious that suicide is not an option for me. I just want to explode in my anger that I made this commitment. But I, you know, stick with it and always find that yes, life is rich and wonderful and, like others have expressed in the history of your blog and in life in general, the lows can make normal seem rich and certainly make great seem stupendous.

Where are you now?

Where am I living?

I mean the ups and downs.

Good question. I was really sad today, being in this community. I was the Franklin County coordinator of the Western Mass Recovery Learning Community, like the hub of activity, the “activity director” practically, the person setting up movie night and presentations, the person people called when they’re in a place of crisis. And like I said, I function really well in those circumstances. I call this thing my super power. People ask, “What do you mean your super power?” Someone might diagnose you as bipolar,but  I call those qualities your “super powers.” You just need to learn how to harness and ride them. A friend recently told me I was an empath. I kind of know this, but its nice to be affirmed. So in my role as coordinator, I was really surrounded by a lot of people, coordinating things, doing the nitty-gritty, creating incredible programming, but since I left that position, there’s been a level of loneliness. I’m really trying to examine who I am, what’s my role, and do people like me, do people want to be with me.

I’m really aware of the fact that often people think everyone else is out having fun, has lots of great friends, when in fact so many people are experiencing loneliness. So I try to move past my feelings of loneliness and be the one to call other people. But it definitely has come up for me lately. Tonight, I wanted to go to an event, and I made 15 calls and sent six texts before hearing from anybody. Finally, one response. Before I got that, I wanted to start sobbing. You know, like I said, I’m in a bit of a raw state, trying to figure out what I’m doing. I have a big, beautiful house, a fantastic partner and two amazing children, 17 and 21, and we currently have an exchange student who’s just a wonderful fit for our family living with us. We have goats and chickens, I’m able to do my art, volunteering my ass off, and able to make money on the side with AirBnB, so my life is good. I’m aware of that. I know the art of appreciation for me is a good skill, to compare and contrast. When things feel hard for me, sometimes I create the picture in my mind of the people who are at this moment huddled in burned-out buildings with children and bombs going off, and they are wet and cold. And I use that to keep an awareness of what is going on in the world and also to contrast, help me appreciate the richness and beauty of my own life.

Why did you leave the job?

I guess I’m going to say that there wasn’t quite the funding for me to get the kind of support I needed to do the job well. There’s just not the funding. It was great work and hard work, and I guess it felt like time to hand off the baton.

So you’ve left the support group, too?

No, I do consulting work with a few organizations still, including facilitating the Alternatives to Suicide Peer Support Group. And I’m available to  give facilitator trainings to peer support groups. I do graphic design for them. I’m also working with the National Empowerment Center doing eCPR trainings, emotional CPR. It’s a more holistic version of Mental Health First Aid. And I am scheduled to do a training with Shery Mead’s Intentional Peer Support to learn their facilitation. I am really excited about that one. I love their product. They have really thought through beautifully what they do.

How did you come to do this support group?

We started as a grassroots organization, the Recovery Learning Community. We are all people who have had every shape, size, color and experience with the system. And what became really obvious to us is that if you are in a clinical setting with any number of agencies, and you tell your provider you’re feeling suicidal, you can expect any number of things to occur. The session may end right there, and you may be passed along to a supervisor. You may be hospitalized against your will. You may be medicated against your will. You may find the police at your door when you get home. People think that this is “mandated reporting.” They say, “We have to, by law, report that you are a harm to yourself.” This is absolutely not true. Mandated reporting is required in cases where a child or an elderly or disabled person is being abused. What people are calling “mandated reporting” is actually an agency’s policy, in order to cover their butts, in order to be cautious with regard to lawsuit. A lot of agencies have policies that require that if someone mentions they’re suicidal, the person who works with them must report it. This is not a state mandate, it’s an agency mandate.

So, at the Western Mass Recovery Learning Community we realized that if I’m feeling suicidal, and I tell you about it and the session ends, I promise I will never tell you again. So, the one thing that I may need, which is to talk about it, I won’t do. So we decided to start the Alternatives to Suicide Peer Support Groups, so people could have a safe place to talk about their thoughts and feelings of suicidality. It’s a gathering where people can come when they’re feeling great or experiencing despair. We’ve realized with the groups that suicide does not discriminate. We’ve had elderly, young, gay, straight, people of color, male, female, transgender, and so often I wish I were, you know, able to record some of the amazing conversations that go on in that space. We have a group in Greenfield, Massachusetts, we have one in Northampton and one in Springfield.

How long have they been going on?

In 2008 was when we received our first funding through the Massachusetts Coalition for Suicide Prevention. And in 2010 is when the Greenfield group started, which is the one I’m involved in. One of the main parameters of our group is that we want people to be able to say what’s happening to them, but we ask that they not paint a picture. So that means someone can say they’ve really been thinking about killing themselves, but we don’t really want to hear that someone purchased rope. We don’t want to hear someone’s story about the blood. We want to find the balance between giving people a space to touch that despair and share what it is like to be in it, without making it a horror circus for someone who may be there for the first time or who may be feeling vulnerable themselves.

Was that a decision at the start, or was it something you learned along the way?

For the group I started, I think it was something right from the beginning. I know it’s a clear directive with the group I’m working with. I’m pretty sure from the beginning. We’re pretty appreciative and sensitive of lending trauma-informed care and support. The awareness that the likelihood of someone having experienced trauma is pretty high. We don’t want to get sloppy and send someone into a terrible place because they came to the group to get support. It’s an interesting balance, and we feel we’ve navigated it pretty gracefully. And as often as someone may be sharing despair, as often we’re engaged in belly laughter. It’s a really rich time together.

People don’t expect there would be laughter, I think.

There’s no directive that we have to talk about suicide. Sometimes that kind of laughter that comes from being in a place of tension just happens. But sometimes we just talk about funny stupid stuff. We also share resources. There’s no directive we must talk about despair or of feeling suicidal, but we really try to hold the space open for that.

(I mention the fears people have expressed about support groups sharing methods and triggering each other.)

There’s also that myth that if you ask somebody about suicide, you’re giving them the idea. And you know, I believe in my heart of hearts that not to be true. Talking about it is paramount. I mean, anyone who’s done the QPR training, the Q stands for “question.” Don’t be afraid to ask someone. You’re not giving them the idea. You’re letting them you know see them.

So the group is sort of the next step.

Yeah.

What are the risks, and have you lost anyone?

No, we haven’t. What people often wonder is, have you had somebody there that you know is in a state of despair, and the group is over, then what happens? One of the main things of the group is, I’m the facilitator, but I’m not in charge. I could not possibly hold that for everyone. I could not possibly be in charge of everyone being alive. When the group starts, a community member takes out the group agreements and posts them. We’ve had people walk in and not know who the facilitator was. Everyone takes ownership. There have been times when everyone was having a hard time. At closing circle time, people say, “Hey, you want a cup of coffee?” It’s real relationships. It’s people being truly connected to one another.

What was the reaction at the Alternatives conference?

Very positive. Really good response. I’m not sure what else to say. I’m very happy with how it went. Good people, good questions. It makes so much sense to people, especially those who are familiar with the movement of people with similar experiences helping one another. Actually, I don’t want to say helping one another. Instead of being helped, which is kind of patronizing, it’s really supporting another person to see themselves. I feel like we reflect people to themselves, in a way. I don’t know how to say that more elegantly. I feel I’m there to really see the person, let them know they’re seen, reflect back what I see as their super powers. And everybody has them. Or to just listen, which really comes before anything else.

It’s funny, another person I interviewed this week talked about people working with their issues as superheroes.

It’s good way to describe what other people are calling the peer work, or un-diagnosing. Not only am I just describing rather than diagnosing, I’m looking at the bright side of it. I feel like everything has its positive and negative. If you’re the kind of person who is incredibly gregarious, or who’s very, very in the present moment, you may be late a lot, but the upside is, if you’re with me, you’re with me. Everything has its bright and difficult side. It’s the dialectic. And rather than have to navigate through the diagnoses I was given … I’ve been diagnosed as bipolar, schizophrenic with paranoid tendencies and clinically depressed, if I recall correctly. And that can be debilitating. I understand for some people it’s helpful to know what going on. But for me, to cloak myself in something like that, that’s not my Supergirl cape, that doesn’t help me get airspace between me and the Earth. It acts more like cement boots. Or kryptonite.

I wonder what nervous therapists think of these support groups …

They are often in the stronghold of their agency policy. And that’s just that.

I can imagine them thinking, “If these people just found the right therapist …”

Well, here in Western Mass, we have a lot of enlightened people in every aspect of life. I hate to be so arrogant or blithe about it, but we really have a lot of great therapists who do great work and who do promote our groups. You know, the bottom line is, it always comes down to the dollar, doesn’t it? If we’re available to people, it lessens other people’s and agencies’ burdens. And I think before too long, the numbers are going to show themselves. I don’t know how people can track it well, but I think we are keeping people out of the hospital, and that’s where the huge expenses lie.

How can this idea of support groups be grown?

I’m trying to let as many people know as possible, through presenting at conferences and my involvement with the local and statewide coalitions for suicide prevention. I also have a little performance piece I’ve developed, and it’s my hope that it becomes a platform for dialogue. It’s called “My Mom’s Favorite.” And it’s about my relationship to my mother’s relationship to suicide. It’s a little tricky because the piece does paint pictures, so it’s another place in my life where I’m struggling with the dialectic of wanting to share my story, create art from my own experience and act sensitively. What I am doing is to forewarn people to the intensity, make them aware ahead of time that there are some difficult parts, so people are not blindsided. And people can self-select. I’ve performed it this past year at the Massachusetts annual conference for suicide prevention and had a wonderful response. And I received funding from the Pioneer Valley Coalition for Suicide Prevention, so I’ll be performing it in January at All Souls Unitarian Church in Greenfield.

Is your performance online?

I have one very sloppy recording of it. A friend did make a short film about me that’s an edited portion of my piece, but I only have it on DVD. But I do have my written transcript. I’d be happy to send it to you.

Yes, what is it about?

It’s about how I and my brother navigated a number of my mother’s suicide attempts, and there’s some humor in it, which I think helps lighten it a bit. But I’m still struggling whether it’s fair to have some of the detail that’s in there.

What does your mother think of it? Is she still alive?

No way _ my mother is alive _ but I would never show it to her. The preface to the piece gives a sense of why I would not bother: “Just after my daughter was born, my mother asked me, ‘Honey, what do you think you’ll do different with Della from how I raised you?’ As I looked into her mouse brown eyes, the strange innocence of her inquiry threw me and for a moment, I was unable to answer, place myself in time or even breathe; our life together was flashing in my brain. I knew I had to come up with an answer for her, but would it be my answer or the one she needed to hear? It was a tough decision, rooted in a past where so many of my choices revolved around her. For instance …”

My mother is in pretty strong denial. I let my siblings read it this past year, and it affected them in different ways. My sister, it really threw her into somewhat of a tumult, working out some of the things she hadn’t quite yet explored or even looked at.

You talked a bit about your own experience, from your attempts to your deciding that suicide is not an option. How did you climb out, from one end to the other?

Well, having children was huge. That just was, like, so obvious, “You cannot pull this shit. You cannot fool around with this stuff.” And partly because, as I watched my mother over the years, I learned what doesn’t work. So if I attempt my life, it’s gonna be completed. I know what doesn’t work. As I said, it was a total fluke that my serious attempt didn’t work, because I went to great lengths. I wasn’t going to be found. It was not a cry for help. It was me wanting to be sure I was gonna see God before I’d see another day. And at times now, what I recognize is, if I’m feeling suicidal, what I know is that I feel that bad. So I need to deal with it. And sometimes that kind of thing, like in your interview with Wendy, that the weight of the blanket is too much. I’ve had that thing where it took every ounce of strength to pull the blanket off of me. Now, one of the things I know I can do, that feels like a freebie, is go running. It’s not a freebie, it’s really hard to do when I feel like crap, but the adrenaline _ no, not the adrenaline _

Endorphins.

Yeah, endorphins. So that’s one of the things I know to do, to act on myself like those discs the EMTs put the gel on and put on your heart to get it _ Kachunk! _ running. Running does it to me. Like I said, lately I’ve been feeling alone at times. And running with my dogs does it a lot.

You mentioned once being a born-again Christian. Why did you migrate away from that, and did it have any part of your putting away suicide as an option?

I am pretty aware now of the fact that this is my big moment. If you look at all of history and all of life lived here on earth, this is my onionskin paper-thin moment. I don’t believe in reincarnation, I don’t believe in heaven, so this is it. It would be a crime to the universe to cut it short. It is not something I could ever get back.This is my big moment.

You also brought up the excellent point about affordability. How many people do you think try to handle their suicidality themselves because they can’t afford to do otherwise?

When I was talking about money, I was really talking about the money in the mental health system. I was talking about the fact that we, the Alternatives to Suicide Peer Support Groups, I believe, are keeping people out of the hospital. That is hugely cost effective, which people like to know about. The thing is, we really try to keep paperwork to a minimum. It is counter to who we are, so it is not something that is easily proven.

One thing I worry about is the number of people who end up seriously harmed because they think, “Well, maybe this will work.” Is it just me? Would warning people that it’s far more difficult than they think keep them from even going there?

I don’t think it is a good idea. That becomes a tricky topic, because what you end up saying is, “If you are going to do it, you better do it right”? I actually suffered some brain damage, I believe, from my carbon monoxide poisoning. I’ll take it. Certainly, it doesn’t compare to some of the horrible results one’s mind can conjure for an uncompleted attempt, but I am glad to be alive. And, as I said, I was certain that I would be able to end my life because I had been witness to my mother’s attempts all growing up.

Sometimes I wonder whether I’m only talking with the high-functioning, well-situated attempt survivors and am missing everyone else. Does that make sense? Is there a class of attempt survivors who would not be able to benefit, or even get to, support groups like yours?

We are a down-to-earth group. We are fortunate to have people from all walks of life. We vary in education, race, sexual orientation, gender and socioeconomic backgrounds. But I am sure there are people who are steeped in isolation who are not able to ferret out the information and resources. That, I think is the greater problem, more so than funds. But maybe it always comes down to funds, because you need money to get the word out and do the creative outreach.

What else have I not asked?

I don’t know, it’s pretty complete.

How to get more people talking about this subject?

By being unrelenting in our perseverance. We just have to keep our door open, like a restaurant, have the food there just in case. We have to be here for when the one person who happens to be feeling vulnerable shows up. Here’s something important: Our group is not a closed group. We worked at whether it should be closed or open. But you know, the frequency with which spots opened up was pretty rare, and unless you were feeling suicidal at that exact moment, it makes it pretty hard to meet the needs of people who are in crisis. So we have an open group. There ends up being sort of a core group that acts as a nest, so when someone new joins, there’s already a climate created. People are able to hold the space for someone new. The other thing I guess I want to say is, with my performance piece, part of the point of it is to become a forum for discussion of suicide prevention. My main purpose is to really show the trajectory of what goes on in the group, a trajectory toward optimism and positiveness. That’s not to say people can’t come in with their despair, but there are enough people who hold the space that the trajectory seems to be kind of toward hope. Which, I hate using that word, but the trajectory is toward something better.

Why do you hate the word “hope”?

Oh, just some people I know say, “If I hear the word ‘hope’ one more time, I’m gonna scream!” But really, there’s not another word to substitute for hope. It’s the bird with wings, right?

Right. You’re in Massachusetts. I have to ask, since you’re about to vote on assisted suicide, where does that come in?

It’s very tricky. For most things in life, I have this springboard toward “I know what I think about that.” With assisted suicide, I’m taking in information. My instinct is toward “I would want that to be an option for myself if I was in drastic and chronic pain and unable to move or was dying of cancer and had before me the given of extreme and excruciating pain. I would want that to be an option for me.” For now, I’m exploring, not saying I’m for or against it. I’m thinking about it, and definitely I will have decided by Nov. 6. I know my instinct is toward yes, it’s something people should be allowed to do. And I know there are moments when things seem untraversable. But I’m assuming that physician-assisted suicide has all sorts of time frames, no spontaneous decisions to it. But friends I respect worry it could play out in a really terrible way for people who are disabled, so I’m trying to read up. I’m assuming, maybe I’m wrong, but I’m assuming that it couldn’t be just a spontaneous decision. I assume it would be tremendously well thought out and reasoned. Like I said, I’m uncertain.

Your attempt, was it well thought out and reasoned?

It is interesting you ask because at the time, I really thought it was. But it was, like, over 72 hours. Or a week or whatever. So yes and mostly, no.

Your kids, do they even know about all of this?

Yes. Hmm. Yeah, I think they’re both very proud of the work I do, but … You know, I didn’t suddenly one day, like, lay it on them. I’m pretty open with my kids about my life and my story. When my kids were little, they would ask, “Oh, what’s that picture from?” “Oh, that’s when Mama was in drug rehab, blah blah.” Or “Oh, that picture was when Mama was in the institution, before you were born.” There was no moment when this heavy thing fell. I think I did a good job of normalizing the process of my life and thereby doing my little part to help end the stigma. Lot’s of people have had hard moments in their lives. I know my kids are proud of the work I do. But we don’t really talk about it much. Not for any real reason. Just busy. The Alternatives conference was in Portland, and I hoped my daughter could make my presentation, since she’s at Reed, but she had class. But if she didn’t have class, I’m certain she would have tried to make it. But that’s really not the bulk of who I am.

Thank you for leading into my last question: Who else are you?

It’s a pretty long list, just like anybody’s. I’m a writer, an artist, a poet, a gardener, I am _ what am I? Michael, what am I? _ My husband said, “A writer.” Tristan, our exchange student, says, “Creative.” A dog lover. Yeah. a lot of things. I am a person who feels deeply, for sure. And I like that, but it also can be hard. But I would never trade it for not feeling deeply.