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.

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