Talking with Michael Woods

“It happens to the best of us.” Michael Woods couldn’t have put it more clearly. Michael is studying for his master’s degree in rehab counseling, working for an independent living organization in Montana, getting ready for marriage and trying to reassure his family that he’s doing the right thing by buying a home. He’s 23, and it seems that since his attempt he’s been finding the best of himself.
The pot smoking’s over. He’s drinking far less than he ever did in high school, when he dropped into despair, shot himself and ended up in a wheelchair. He’s found a smaller, stronger network of friends. And his family brags about him. “They’re happy I’m expanding my horizons more than anyone expected I could have,” he says.
I’ll warn you that Michael’s kept a rather wicked sense of humor. He uses it in a more gentle way to make his audiences laugh when he talks about his experience and suicide prevention. Rolling around town is another story. I will never go to Wal-Mart with this guy, that’s for sure.
Tell me a little about yourself. Who are you?
Michael Woods, I grew up in Great Falls, Montana, live in Billings now. Hunting, fishing, always been outdoors, still am. Played football, was a state champion marksman at one point. Let’s see, what else. I got six months to a year of depression and alcohol and drug abuse that kind of led me down the suicide road.
How recent was that?
It will be six years Feb 9.
How did you get on that suicide road?
I think it was probably my sophomore year. I started drinking. One thing led to another, where it was one night every weekend, and soon to every night every weekend, and spending all the money I had from work on booze for that weekend. And then that led to smoking cigarettes, smoking pot all the time. All the money that didn’t go for gas or insurance on my car went to booze and pot. I joked around that “now I’m quitting this weekend,” but of course I wasn’t able to quit. I was addicted to the point where I couldn’t quit. And during that period of time, I had broken up with my girlfriend, and her boyfriend was bent on calling me up, and he and his big brother had already beaten me up. I was 16, he was 19, and his brother was 32. He’d call me every once in a while and say he would come and jump me, etc., and I was going through quite a bit of relationship problems, family relationship problems as well. A sibling rivalry, with my step-siblings and myself, with my stepmom, and soon it led to my dad, problems between him and I, it kept piling on and on and on. It seemed like everything started bringing me down. I’d have suicide thoughts once in a while. Then I started thinking about different ways to do it, with what means, etc. The alcohol and pot seemed to make everything worse. I felt more depressed when drinking. And I guess the worst part was that I hated myself and letting down my family. This isn’t who I wanted to be.
I always tell people there’s never one thing that makes a person want to commit suicide. It’s always a pile of things. For me, the tipping point was I lost my job. Instead of picking up a friend and going back to work, I stayed to party. So I had lost my job. So I was parking at work to look like I was at work and then going out. I had gotten caught parking my vehicle at work. It made me realize how badly I was hurting my family. It seems the suicide thoughts came with regrets, how much of a loser I was. I hated myself for what I’d become. And so, on the night I got caught parking my car, I went and got my car _ I was supposed to go home, I had actually moved out of dad’s house _ so I went and got my car, and I used to fish in the river in Great Falls, I carried a pole in the back of the car and would stop on the way to work and catch a few fish that looked good. What I did was, I parked the car at one of my favorite spots. I was smoking cigarettes, thinking about all my regrets, how I let my family down. About a month prior to that, I had gotten a gun to carry in the car for protection from my ex-girlfriend’s new boyfriend. I went and parked. I tried to calm myself down. I determined the only way out from being a loser was to commit suicide. So I sat there and wrote a note, most of it apologizing to my dad for letting him down, saying that a suicide attempt was a very selfish thing and I was very sorry about that. So I wrote the note, set it right next to me.
The gun, I was trying to figure out the best way to hold it, the way to point it. I just wanted it all over with. I thought maybe I’d point under my chin, so what I eventually did was hold it right above my right ear, up and to the left, from right to left in my brain. And before I did it, I remember I did not want my family to find my body. I had heard horror stories about families finding their loved ones and how it scarred them the rest of their lives. I thought I’d call 911 real quick before I did it. All I said was, “This is the car I’ll be in, where I’m parked, don’t let my family see the body.” I hung up and almost immediately held up the gun.
When I pulled the trigger, I had a split second of consciousness where my head was hanging down and I saw my pants were covered in blood. And the ambulance eventually got there, and my jaw was locked so tight they had to give me drugs to relax my body. They stuck a tube down my throat. The bullet only affected the motor functions of my brain. The bullet lodged in the skull of my left side. It avoided all the sensation, all the organ functions. As vital as your brain is, I avoided the vital parts of it. They induced a coma. My brain was swelling. I probably would have died if the bullet would have gone out the other side, bled to death. But luckily it didn’t. So they drained the fluid out of my brain.
When I was in a coma, I remember dreaming I was in a car wreck. When I woke up, I thought it was for that. They couldn’t convince me of what I had done. Until the memories started to come back. They thought I’d have no memory of anybody. They didn’t know what mental capabilities I’d have. I remember waking up and seeing my grandma. I had to mouth everything. The doctor’s like, “Do you know who that is?” I’m like, “Heck yeah, I know who that is.” The memories started coming back. I think I just kind of came out. After the injury, looking back, I was a completely new person. I tell people I was kind of a jerk. I’m happy-go-lucky with a big sense of humor, but anybody that was different, or considered as a nerd, or other derogatory term, I would avoid or treat badly.
Did that happen immediately?
I think so, yeah.
When you were  in the hospital recovering?
Yeah, I even told everybody I didn’t want anything to do with drugs anymore.
Have you ever spoken with the people who helped you just after your attempt, the people who found you or treated you in the emergency room?
I have spoken to a lot of the people that were helping me in the hospital. I would go visit the rehab unit, ICU, PCU, and one of the ambulance drivers and I are still good friends.
Physically, how long did it take to come back, and what did it take?
They induced a coma for about a month, then transitioned me from the ICU to the PCU. Then to the rehab department. I went into the hospital on Feb 9 and came out about June 9 or so back to my dad’s place.
And how were you?
I was a completely different person. I had psychologists trying to shove antidepressants down my throat, but I said I wasn’t depressed anymore. I tell people I’m impatient to go out and live my life. There’s so much I want to accomplish now. My passion is about showing others that same thing, that there’s more out there to live for than not to live for, I guess.
None of those feelings have come back? Even drugs?
There was a point where I was doing a lot of drinking and pot again. I met my fiancee and I realized, “What am I doing?” So I kind of stopped hanging out with those same friends, stopped the pot, way less drinking. I drink way less than I did in high school. Shortly after leaving the hospital, I had dozens of friends visiting while I was in there. The moment I left the hospital, I had gone from 20 or so friends visiting to maybe three. Now I have maybe three or four close friends. All healthier relationships. The period of time transitioning from hospital to home, it seems everyone left me at the drop of a hat. I was very depressed during those moments. Part of that was, I was seeing a psychologist. I also started to realize there was more out there, I had a story to tell. So I did my first suicide prevention talk like a year after I left the hospital.
How did it go?
Pretty good, not as organized as the talks I do now. I have a few videos. Yeah, it was mostly a testimonial announcement to reach out for help. Now I have a longer spiel, about an hour’s worth. It’s been a work in progress. I think I’ve got it down to a science.
You’ve done it by yourself?
Most is done by myself. There’s been a few presentations I’ve seen where I talked to them afterwards. Most weren’t related to suicide prevention, but I’d say I’m going to use that idea for mine.
What’s the message?
Pretty much that suicide prevention is a permanent tool to fix a temporary problem. There’s no problem a person can’t overcome. And in part of my talk, I talk about sunburns. When you have a pretty bad sunburn, you think, “I’d do anything to get over this.” It’s so agonizing. But before you know it, you’re over it, and you have this really nice tan! Or, if you get dumped, you’re better off without them. I always end my talks with jokes about the good things and bad things about having a disability. The last part is the jokes about the good and bad things about being in a wheelchair.
For example?
The bad things are, a lot of people will talk down to you. “Hey, little guy! Where’s my big boy?” “Hey, sport!” And everybody wants to pray for you, even in a public place, even in a restaurant. I’m all for people trying to pray for me, but in a public place it’s a little awkward. So I ask them, “Well, can I pray for you?” It catches them off guard, like, “A guy in a wheelchair wants to pray for me?” Also, they slow down their speech and slow their voices and get really loud. “How … are … you?” “I’m … O … K.” Also, I like to use what I call my crippled card. People don’t expect to be messed with by someone with a disability. Another bad part is, at a restaurant, the waiter always looks for who’s in charge of you and asks, “What does he want? Does he want some more?” I’m like, “Yeah, I want some more.” And then they come back and do the same thing.
Once, at Red Lobster, at a conference for an independent living center, we were messing with the waiter all night. I got an idea: What if I started screaming, “I made a stinky, can you change me?” But we found out he was standing right behind us and heard it. The funny thing was, he lives in our town and always makes a big deal about saying hi. I love doing that at Wal-Mart though, with my mom, I was chasing her around with my wheelchair: “Mommy, I made a stinky!” My fiancee gets mad when we go to Wal-Mart and I scream, “Hey, Ashley, you left your herpes medication at the pharmacy!” I have a crooked sense of humor. My last joke is, my wheelchair, I can park in the passenger seat, and if you roll down the window it looks like I’m in a regular chair. It’s fun to pick fights with people. They slam on their brakes and get out, then they see me getting out of a wheelchair. “Oh, I’m worry! Want me to pray for you?” Sometimes it’s demeaning, but you get the best of it.
How old are you?
23 next month.
You mentioned a fiancee. Are you married yet?
June 2014 is when we’ll get married. I’m still in a masters program. I finished my bachelor’s in the spring of 2012. We’re just moving into a new house we just bought.
A lot of people ask me what I miss. I pretty much do everything I did before I was in a wheelchair. I have a gun mount that I point with a joystick. I went camping last summer. I do pretty much anything I set my mind to. I also design my own assisted technology. Similar to the gun mount. It’s a pool cue that shoots by a joystick.
Obviously for playing pool?
Yes.
Are you going to patent this things?
It would be nice, yeah. My problem is, I have more ideas than I have money. If I’m buying a house, I have to limit myself.
You mentioned being in a wheelchair, but I hadn’t realized that more than your legs were affected.
All of my motor functions were affected. I do have mobility a little bit in my arms. I can stand myself up if I put my hands on a grab bar. If I’m standing with a walker, if someone moves my leg forward, I can initiate the walking process. It’s just training parts of my brain to take over motor functions.
You mentioned a gun mount. Do you feel uncomfortable, considering what you went through?
Well, I can’t blame guns for what I did. It’s not the gun’s fault. It’s something I’ve grown up doing. It’s a passion I love doing. It’s not an issue for me. It was just a means to an end. If someone was going to hang themselves, it’s not like they stop using rope. I’m comfortable talking about my story. It’s not something I need to hide or be ashamed of. I’m proud of my disability, sharing my story. It’s kind of my gift for me to share.
What I meant was, it’s not like you have flashbacks about that experience when you handle a gun?
It’s never been an issue for me. It’s not traumatic. I don’t have any affiliation with that at all, post-traumatic.
When you tried to kill yourself, did you think there were risks of something like this happening, ending up in a wheelchair? Did you think you would kill yourself for sure?
I was thinking I could just drive my car into a semi or something. I thought, “No, I don’t want to end up in a wheelchair.” So it’s kind of ironic. I was thinking there was no way to survive it.
If that message was used in suicide prevention, that nothing you use to try to kill yourself is foolproof, do you think that would keep people from trying?
Probably not. The hardest thing was not the sacrifice I gave up but what I did to my family. People always ask, “Would you take it back?” I would not take it back for myself. It’s hard to think my life actually improved, but it has. I’d probably have ended up in jail or dead by other means. But one reason I’d take it back is how much I hurt my family and friends over the process. There was lots of grieving involved when it first happened. Most of my family members have gotten over that part, but I saw family members grieving over the fact that I was in a wheelchair, even though I still gained so much and have gotten ahead.
How are they taking it now?
All my family relationships have improved. All are really proud of me. They brag about me all the time, how I’m doing in school. I’m on the governor’s advisory board for vocational rehab. I’m a full-time master’s student working 40 hours a week. Now a home owner. Suicide prevention talks. I’ve been in two newspaper articles about what I’ve been doing in suicide prevention work. I was in a suicide documentary called “Unspoken” for the University of Montana. They’re happy I’m expanding my horizons more than anyone expected I could have.
And how did you meet your fiancee?
I was chosen to go to a Montana youth leadership forum. It’s a training camp for youth disabilities on how to become self-advocates to live independently. I was chosen to go as a delegate, and she was working there as staff. She had been a delegate previously. She’s hard of hearing, that’s her disability. So we volunteered at that for several years, then retired from the staff.
How do you guys get along?
Great. We’re kind of opposites, balance each out pretty well. It’s kind of funny. She likes vegetables, I like meat, so when we order a dish, she eats the vegetables and I eat the meat.
How did you get around to telling her your background?
Since she was on staff, the staff kind of told her. I wasn’t in her small group. She heard the story, and after the training forum we exchanged e-mails because we found out we were going to the same college. And one thing led to another. After about six months of exchanging e-mails and stuff, she came to visit me in Great Falls. We did the long-term relationship thing until I moved out to Billings.
Do you think people still worry about you?
The only worry I think they have is, it’s more concerned with my disability, that I have help. Do I know what I’m getting into when we buy a house? Like that. Most of my family knows I can do anything I put my mind to. I don’t do anything too rash. As far as suicidal thoughts, no, it’s not even like a thought to them.
What made you decide to start giving talks? And what was the response?
I was asked by my youth pastor at church one day. I said yes. I realized that’s kind of what I survived for, give those talks. I’ve always gotten really good responses. I get a lot of people telling me I’m an inspiration.
Do you get the sense people are nervous about the subject?
Sometimes, like, in the grocery store or other public places, they ask and I tell them. “Oh, I’m so sorry.” “No, don’t be sorry.” I’ll tell them the whole story in the middle of the grocery store. Yeah, at first. But I’m OK with it.
What kinds of questions do you get?
Most of them are, why did I do it. How I get my care done. You now, more of the stuff is regarding my disability. A lot ask if I’d take it back.
Do you get different questions one on one?
Sometimes people come up quietly like, “Thank you. I’ve had bad ideas about suicide, and it’s good to see there’s hope. I’ll make sure to get hooked up with a counselor.”
Are you ever surprised people don’t know that resources exist?
Honestly, no. I tell them to get help, don’t be afraid, they’re not gonna lock you up in an insane asylum. It happens to the best of us.
What more would you like to do with this?
I thought about writing a book, a memoir. I thought about getting a doctorate in rehab technology. I work for an independent living center, so I’m constantly working on disability rights. I just have so many ideas, so I’m kind of impatient about living my life. I would love to move my talks nationally instead of statewide.
Have you met other people like you?
Not as a suicide attempt. No, I have met a couple other people with traumatic brain injuries from an attempt, but they never openly said. I just heard from other people.
In your e-mail, you mentioned having theories about the experience. Are there others you haven’t mentioned here?
I think insecurities are the big issue among those who try to commit suicide, the insecurity of being able to maintain a relationship. And I feel I can always tell whether a person trying to commit suicide _ I know this sounds weird _ but there’s some who do it for attention, but some, like me, they think they’re better off dead. I can usually tell when I meet a person whether they’re doing it for attention or they’re genuinely miserable. A few people at my high school accused me of doing it for attention. I was like, “Why would I use a gun?” You know, people swallow a bunch of pills, I feel, not always, when people use that way they’re crying out for help. It’s not a bad thing, they just need to go to the hospital and say, “I’m having suicidal thoughts, somebody help me.” As opposed to going around saying, “I wanted to die.” You see a lot of girls in high school swallow, like, eight Tylenol. When my older sister tried that, I knew it was a cry for help because she had the same relationship problem with my dad that I did.
You knew she had tried something?
Yeah, she was admitted to the hospital for swallowing pills in an attempt. I heard it from my parents, my grandparents. It wasn’t enough pills to actually get the job done. It was to make it look like a suicide attempt. I mean, there are individuals who try to use pills, usually enough to where they swallow the whole bottle. I’ve heard stories where people swallow so many pills that they mess up parts of the brain so it never functions the same way again. But you see statistics, that females try it more but males accomplish it more because they use more effective means. I feel as though when a person is really dedicated in killing themselves, they will use the more effective method than something survivable. I’ve talked to others: “That one’s gonna work.”
I’m really lucky, I can breathe on my own, I can stand, I’m able to talk. I’m kind of a smart ass. My physical therapist said, “I wish you had a little less mental and a little more physical.”
So you’re very open about this.
Very open, easygoing. I say my boundaries are made out of rubber bands.
For a person who understands the difference you just described and doesn’t want to die but just wants the feeling to stop, what would you say?
I’m a counseling major. You want something that will prevent and stop and eliminate those feelings. You want your toolbox. Get as much tools in your toolbox to help you when you come across problems. I always say, you know, those moments when you’re emotionally hurting, you’d give anything to get over it, but all of a sudden you’re over it. All those moments you get over, I call those in-your-face moments. So put it in the toolbox, and when a moment comes, say, “If I can get over that, I can get over this. In your face!”
How do we get the topic out there so it’s more comfortable for people to talk about?
I incorporate my sense of humor in everything. My goal is to leave the suicide prevention talk with everyone in a great mood. They’re crying, and then they’re laughing so hard they’re crying.
You never get people saying, “This isn’t funny”?
I’m not making jokes about suicide itself. I’m making jokes about my situation, but the jokes I do make about my attempt itself is like, well, two things. A lot of people are like … I have one of those mentalities like, “Shit happens.” What’s the worst that can happen? I’ll be in a wheelchair? I took a bullet to the head. There’s not much worse that can happen.
Then, I think when I’m 80-something I’ll be the oldest living person with a bullet in the head.
How do you know that?
I heard some show about a Civil War vet with a bullet lodged in his head for so many years. I did the math. It would be about 84, 86 years. It’s still lodged in my skull. It could’ve done more damage taking it out. It’s not gonna be coming loose at all.
You can’t feel anything?
No. That’s another question I get a lot.
Is there anything else you’d like to add?
I think I pretty much got them all out. People should feel free to contact me. I’d love to see my talks go national. I’d like to help as many people as I can.
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