Talking with David Parnell

David Parnell has spoken publicly for years about his past drug addiction, but until a few weeks ago, he’d never been asked only about the times he’d tried to kill himself. He was part of a live segment on The Huffington Post about attempt survivors.

A decade ago, he woke up in the hospital and found his face shattered. At some point in the following months of recovery, he scribbled down a promise: He wanted to tell people the truth about drugs. But then he hesitated, embarrassed. “No, go now,” his wife told him. “Show them what the drugs have done.”

Here, he talks about finding religion, giving graphic but well-received presentations and happily turning into David the Dad.

Who are you? Please introduce yourself.

I’m David Parnell. I’m 46 years old, a recovering meth addict, and a suicide survivor. I’m
also married, and my second wife and I have seven children together.

How old is the oldest?

The oldest is 20, the youngest is 9. I actually have a daughter who has already graduated
college, 26 years old, from my first marriage. So actually, I have eight altogether.

How did you get to the point where you’re here talking with me?

Well, I had been on drugs for 23 years by the time I attempted suicide the last time. I
had tried three years earlier. I hung myself, went unconscious, and someone found me
face down in the dirt in a barn. The rope had broken after I went unconscious, that’s
what saved me. I stayed sober five months, then went back on meth. Then, three years
later, I ended up taking a rifle, putting it under my chin and pulling the trigger.

I started like most kids, experimenting with drugs as a teen, and by my early 20s I was
introduced to meth in Dallas, Texas. I liked it, and it gave me a lot of energy. I didn’t
know what it was made out of. I didn’t dream where it would take me. The longer I was
on it, the more depressed I was and the more anxiety I felt. I became psychotic on meth.
I was very explosive and assaulted people for no reason sometimes. Then, when I
sobered up, I had all of this guilt about the way I treated my wife and other people in
our neighborhood. That guilt fed the depression and anxiety.

I tried to quit a bunch of times. When I tried to quit, I didn’t ever change the people I was around. So I would quit for five or six months but still be around drug users. I would do good for a while, but then I would be back around these old friends, and of course they were getting high. I’d say “No,” then all of a sudden I would hit a joint or do line of meth and start over using again. I felt hopeless and didn’t think I would ever be able to quit. Then, as the depression got worse, I started thinking to myself that everyone would be better off if I
was dead. I heard a guy tell me once how cowardly an act it was. It really ticked me off.
I know it seems cowardly, but most people who commit suicide, they look as it as trying
to help people around them. In my twisted mind, I was trying to help them. Of course, I
know how wrong that was. But that’s what I thought. Death seemed like the only option
at the time.

How does the mind make that jump to “Everyone would be better off”?

I thought I was doing them a favor because I thought I was a monster and that even my
kids didn’t like me or want to be around me. My wife was about to have a nervous
breakdown, she couldn’t understand why I was acting the way I was. I really don’t know
how I made the jump to think that. I know the day I shot myself, I asked my wife to lay
down next to me. I was real sick and had lost about 60 pounds. We were arguing about
her leaving with the kids. I said, “I can’t stand up, will you lay down and talk?” She said, “I’m going to lay down and talk for a minute, but me and the kids are still going to leave.”
When she said that, I snapped. I just reached over and grabbed the rifle in the corner by
the bed. In my mind, I thought, “That’s it. This dope has robbed me of everything.”

With meth, because it’s a stimulant, I still remember my thoughts clearly. That’s what
clicked that day that I shot myself. I thought life wasn’t worth trying to go on. The day I
hung myself three years earlier, I was having hallucinations and hearing voices. The
voice was telling me that day _ and it sounds very strange to a normal person _ but that
voice was telling me, “Your wife and kids would be better off if you were dead. There’s
no forgiveness for the things you’ve done.” I immediately just got up out of my chair,
walked to the barn, found an old rope, tied it to a rafter and stepped off my riding lawn
mower. My wife and kids were not home that day. I had gone to jail for a couple days
for assaulting my wife and for having marijuana, and my wife and kids were living
somewhere else when I got out. I was alone and went right back to doing meth. About
three or four days being out of jail, I tried to hang myself. Someone stopped by to check
on me because they had heard me and my wife were having problems, and they went
to the barn.

Also, I think the reason why I didn’t shoot myself then was because whenever the police
came to my house, they confiscated my .22 rifle. Thank God for that, because otherwise I
might have grabbed the gun. I don’t know why the thought to hang myself came in my
head. It really was instantaneous. Maybe at the time it seemed like the only thing I had.

But how did she know to go to the barn?

I guess when she didn’t find me in the house, she walked around back. The barn was
right behind the house. She freaked out. It actually was my sister. She went into a
severe panic. Freaked. She got me up and coherent after a while. I couldn’t swallow for a
long time. I couldn’t hardly eat for a week. I couldn’t hardly talk. My family didn’t take
me to a rehab. There were no rehab centers. They took me to a preacher, a recovering
alcoholic. I could relate to him. He knew the struggle of addiction. He helped me. I got
off everything for about five months. Then, when I went back to work, the same old
routine. I worked the second shift in a tire company and started hanging out at
suppertime with friends who were getting high. It was like a recurring nightmare. Each
time I went back, it seemed like the addiction got worse.

How did that change after the second time?

The second time, I woke up three days later in the Vanderbilt University Hospital trauma
center. I asked God to come into my heart. I wanted to change. I told people I needed
something stronger than me I could believe in. I had made the decision that I was done,
I wanted to lay it down, but I needed some help. I believed that my faith in something
stronger than me could help me get through it, and it did. I know God isn’t for
everybody, and some people tell me that at seminars, “I’m not into the Jesus thing,
what do I do?” I say, “I don’t know, I can only tell you what worked for me.” When I got
the craving, I got out the Bible and read. I did it about 10 times a day. I couldn’t
understand the stuff I was reading half the time, but it helped, and I give it credit for my
being sober.

I had been to state prison, I tried to commit suicide twice, and nothing ever
worked for me before. But when I quit everything and started studying this guy who
said he loved all people, no matter if they’re homosexual, prostitutes or whatever,
what I got out of it was a lot better than what I got from preachers. I thought, “Maybe he
loves me, too.” It changed my life. I see nowadays, people who start studying the Bible
get very judgmental. I don’t think that’s what it’s about at all. It helped me to live by
those laws of loving people. It changed my life. I talk to schools a lot of time, with a huge
majority of Muslims or Hindus, and most all of the faiths have this thing of loving
people. So that’s where I am at today. That’s what I try to live by.

How did you stay away from old friends?

No one had been by or sent a letter to hospital. The most important thing with my
friends was getting high. All we really were was drug associates. Then, when I was able
to come home, I had to come back to the same house. They had already pulled up the
carpets and cleaned the room, but I didn’t like to go in that room for a long time. For a
few months, I was not strong enough to get around. While I was in the hospital, I had
written down on a piece of paper, “I want to tell people the truth about drugs.” I didn’t
really know what I was writing, but I was feeling all that guilt of selling dope in my
neighborhood for 20 years. I was just having these faces popping in my head I had sold
drugs to. One had committed suicide, one had ODed. Even though they could have got
their dope from someone else, I still sold it too. When I got stronger, my wife started
asking me, “Are you going to talk to people?” I was embarrassed. I didn’t have a nose, I
wanted to wait until they fixed me up. She said, “No, go now. Show them what the
drugs have done.”

I found a jail that let me come in, they let me go in and talk to inmates about where drugs had taken me. Then I went into drug court, then a church group, then state prison. There I was, eight months later, talking to people about not doing drugs. The people on meth were so paranoid anyway, they thought I was a rat. That ended up being a blessing in disguise. Nobody come around. I looked back on it as I was talking to my sheriff one day: “I think it freaked them out so bad, they didn’t come around!” Of course, I had my mind completely set also. I didn’t have the intense cravings like some people when I went to the store and saw the Sudafed, for example. I did have some cravings, but most was because I felt so bad. It took months to get my energy level back. One day I started crying because I felt so guilty. I didn’t know anything about mental addictions or even physical. I was crying because I thought, “How can I crave something that almost killed me?” I didn’t understand at the time.

The worst thing for me was the dreams. I would have dreams I was using. When you
have dreams and wake up feeling little buzzed, you get confused. That was very
frustrating. I haven’t had one in a real long time, but after talking to you, I might go to
sleep tonight and have a one.

Oh no!

It’s all right. I was talking to a man at a funeral last night. He was struggling with
addiction. He’s 53 years old. Now he’s hooked on pain pills. I was trying to tell
him, “Eventually, your cravings will go away.” It took me a year. And one day I turned
around said, “Hey, two or three weeks and no craving!” Now it’s been 10 years.

How long did it take to physically recover?

I think it took six or seven months before feeling better physically. It took a year before
feeling better mentally.

How long did it take to reconstruct you?

They’ve been working on me for 10 years. I’ve had about 30 operations. I haven’t had a
surgery now in about 10 months. The blast had literally split my face in two and broke
every bone in my face. I’ve got over 30 titanium plates and screws in my face. I have had
bone grafts out of my hips and ribs. They cut a big square of skin off my forehead and took bone out of my hip for a nose. I have my nasal passages opened, I’m able to taste good, and I can smell again. I can’t completely see out of my right eye, but I’m very lucky not to be blind.

I think we’re about done with reconstruction now. I still don’t have any front teeth on the top or bottom. Just a few on each side. I think the last thing will be implants to have front
teeth again one of these days. I also blew 70 percent of my lips off. Where they sewed
me up, the hole was hardly big enough to get a small spoon in. So they’ve cut me open
to widen my mouth a couple of different times. I’ve found that lips are the hardest to
reconstruct. I’m happy with what they did. A lot of areas around my mouth and
throughout my face have no feeling and are just numb. Sometimes I get a burnt lip with
hot soup or something, and it shoots pain into my eyes instead of my lips, like my nerves
are wired back wrong or something.

But they did a wonderful job with the damage I did. I really shouldn’t be alive. I have crime scene photos I show in seminars with my face blown apart so people can see what surgeons have done with me compared to the pictures.

You show the photos?

I’ve gotten lots of e-mails about that. I was doing about 80 percent of seminars at
schools. Most e-mails were from kids about the photos, how powerful they were. Many
of us work off of visual descriptions. I could tell them all day what meth causes to do to
a little child, or me or them, but when I show them the photos, that’s when they really
can grasp the seriousness of the problem. It’s the older people who seem to freak out
and have a problem. Like the other day at a school, I asked them, “How any of you have
seen the show ‘CSI’?” And I’m not kidding, about 90 percent watch it. It’s graphic, and
that’s why my kids watch it, it’s so frickin’ gross. I tell the kids at schools, “What I show
you is no different from TV, but this isn’t made-up. That’s the only difference.” So that
kind of helps relax people. If you want, I can e-mail you.

I don’t know if i want to see it! I don’t even watch “CSI”!

Then you probably don’t want to see! You know, I’ve had great opportunities in my life. I was not raised around drugs. The only person I can blame is myself. All my decisions were left to me in the end. I had the opportunity to go to school and play basketball on scholarships. I gave it all up to get high. I show them pictures of dunking the basketball. I tell them I had a bright future. My decisions were so bad, they altered my life for years.

You can dunk?

I used to could. I kid people that’s the Cherokee in me. I’m part Cherokee and Irish, and
the Irish are not known for jumping very high. I’m almost 6-1, so I don’t know where
I got that. I love the game, and I would practice for hours after regular practice. Plus,
that was an outlet for me for when life was not going real well. Some people retreat to
reading, different stuff. My retreat was out on the basketball court. When playing, it
was like a great meditation. All the issues of life left my head.

What’s your retreat now?

My retreat now is, I play a lot of poker on the computer. I’ve gotten so old, it’s hard to
play basketball. Out of my kids, three are boys, and not one of the boys likes basketball, but all four of the girls love it. I’m joking about the poker, but my real retreat is gardening.
I’ve got a half-acre garden, which is huge for a backyard garden. I grow beans, peas,
watermelons, all you can think of. I spend hours out there. I love it. I love watching it
grow. Plus, you get the benefit of eating good organic stuff.

How have your kids taken all of this?

They’re doing good now. The youngest was not born yet. My wife, Amy, was pregnant
the day I shot myself. We didn’t know she was pregnant. I don’t know if it would have
made any difference, because I was insane from the drugs. It ultimately was down to
the way I was feeling about life. I was very selfish. I thought they’d be better off. If she
had told me she was pregnant, I probably would’ve still did it and thought, “Better he
not know me.”

So I woke up three days later, and Amy had taken a pregnancy test. It might have been
morning sickness that made her think of it. She went down to the drugstore at the first
floor and bought a pregnancy test. That was the very first memory I have when I woke up,
is her telling me she loved me, and the next thing stuck in my mind is, “Also, I found out
that I’m pregnant.” I remember crying because I was happy, and I remember
thinking, “This kid is going to have a better chance than the rest of my kids, because I’m
done with doping.”

I have Gabriel, Abigail, Rebekah and Josiah, those four don’t remember a whole lot.
My 16, 17, 20-year-olds do, but this was 10 years ago, and my oldest was just 10 then.
So they have some memories, but thank goodness I stopped when I did. The memories
they do have is me fighting with their mother, assaulting their mother. The one thing
that shocks people is, I didn’t spank my kids. I still don’t spank my kids today. I’m not
trying to tell anybody how to raise their children, but I don’t think spanking them, for
me, is the right thing. I do other things like ground them. I have people get upset when I
talk like this to them, and don’t know why, because it’s my choice. So my kids don’t have
any memories of that, they’re not traumatized by any physical abuse. But there was
mental abuse. I neglected them. I used to shut myself off in a back room of my house
four or five days at a time. I wasn’t helping change diapers, not helping feed them. They
were severely neglected. It took them years to get over it.

Sarah, the oldest one, was with my oldest son, David, sitting on the couch one day. I had
been sober nine or 10 months and was just learning to talk again, so I’m just getting
back to talking. I realized they were acting real weird. We were watching TV together. I
looked over and said, “What is wrong with you guys?” They were really quiet, and that’s
unusual for my kids. Both of them said, “Nothing.” It hit me, and I looked at them and
said, “You guys think I’m going back to drugs, right?” And both of them said, “Yeah” at
the same time. I said, “Look, guys, I’ve lied to you so many times over the years saying I
quit. I’m going to show you this time. It’s gonna take a while, but after a while you’re
going to realize I’m serious.” And they said, “OK.” It took a long time, a couple years. But
you could ask Sarah, “Do you think your dad will go back to meth?” and she’d say, “No.”

I realized one day how I had really scarred her. When she was 16, when she was still
living with us, she was having a bad day, her and her mother had gotten into it. She
started crying. She said she hated me for what I had done, the way I treated everybody.
She said, “You and mom used to fight every day.” And I said, “Yeah, but it’s six years and
we haven’t fought, have we?” She said, “No.” I said, “Listen, you’ve got to find a way to
forgive me for what I did and the way I treated everybody. Here I am going around
speaking to people, feeling great. I didn’t even know you were holding this in. The only
person you hurt when you don’t forgive is yourself, and you stick in that rut with anger
and hurt.” I think that day was a good healing thing, because she seems to be doing
good now.

My biggest mistake was not getting my kids some counseling. It was offered, and I told
them no. I look back now and say it was one of the worst mistakes for my kids, rejecting
any kind of counseling. I’ll tell you why I made that decision. When I shot myself, I was
seeing a psychiatrist. My company set it up for me. I had told them I was on drugs and
suicidal. They sent me to the company psychiatrist, who was pumping me full of
Klonopin and other drugs. I was only getting worse. It just so happened that the doctor
had lost his privileges to send me to the hospital. I didn’t know at the time. I thought, “This guy’s trying to kill me, too!”

So when I got out of the hospital, I’m sober, I stopped taking all the depression meds.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not telling people not to take them, but I didn’t want all those
chemicals. I had such a bad taste in mouth from my psychiatrist, I didn’t want one
messing around with my kids. It’s like having a bad policemen and saying all are bad. I
wish I had gotten counseling for the older kids, who were home that day. I like to think I
am mature enough to tell people, “Hey, that was a bad mistake, don’t do what I did.
Please, get them some counseling.” Or they go like my daughter, for years with it bottled
inside.

Now she seems better?

She’s doing really good. I’m so proud of her because she’s in college, living on her own
and paying for everything. Every time I see her, I try to give her $20, but she’s so
independent. The only thing I’m disappointed in, she’s drinking herself a little bit. She’s
in a sorority. I’m very paranoid, because look at what happened with me. I’m worried,
but she’s doing so good. My son David, he’s the next one that remembers a lot. He has
had some counseling over the last year or so. He was real heavyset when he was a kid,
but he lost 80 pounds in like four months. He’s a skinny boy now, but he couldn’t seem
to stop trying to lose weight. I got him counseling for an eating disorder. I didn’t hesitate
with him. We actually had him in the hospital for two or three days. He’s doing really
good now though. I didn’t think it was dangerous the way he’d been working out with
weights, running. I didn’t realize. Some of it may have went back to me and his mother.
He blamed us for being overweight. Teenagers blame you for everything, even if they
haven’t been through trauma, I guess. I couldn’t hardly argue with him about it, though,
because I wasn’t there for him when he was little. I was in the back room getting high.
Rachel, she’s just getting her first job, just turned 16. She doesn’t seem to ever have any
issues, but she was only 6. I don’t think she remembers a lot of that day. Out of the six
kids, four were at home that day. Just the oldest two are the ones who seemed really
affected.

About your speaking, you do most of it at schools?

Yeah, I’m headed to Alabama next week, then New Mexico. I just come back from
Indiana and Minnesota. We used to average 230 programs a year. Now it’s probably 60
schools a year, then 20 to 30 other things like prisons and rehabs. I think I put off
churches because of some of the things I say. I took out of what I read in the Bible that
we’re supposed to love everybody. That’s the most important thing in the whole world.
Not “Only if you believe like me, live like me.” It seems like it offends some people.

What have been the reactions? Any surprises?

Oh yeah, it’s really neat. I’ve been in 33 states, Canada, and London. If they didn’t like it,
I wouldn’t have been to 33 states. I don’t talk about religion to schools at all. I think they
like that part, because there are so many beliefs and faiths in a school system. I only talk
to them about my mission, to get them to make better choices.

When I first come out on stage, you know, I’m disfigured, and the kids are just shocked, you can see it. By the time the program’s over, they usually surround me and shake my hand. It was a school in St. Paul, Minnesota when there were all these girls with the head coverings on, shaking my hand and telling me how much they loved the program. What’s really been nice, more than one time, the kids come up to me and one girl said, “I gotta be honest, I didn’t want to come to your program. I thought, ‘Oh god, not another one!’ But I’m so glad I came! It’s so different than what I expected!” I have to tell you, that made me feel
good. I think it’s the most wonderful compliment I ever had. Once in state prison an
inmate said, “I didn’t want to come in here. Man, I’m glad I did.”

When my wife encouraged me to go speak, I said, “If I’m going to do it, I have to be
completely honest.” She said, “I want you to be honest.” I remember the first time I
took my kids to a program, I was so scared I’d embarrass them. They were all looking at
me. I started crying. On the way home, they were just cutting up and laughing in the car.
It was totally not what I expected of them! I figured they thought, “Hey, Dad really is
sorry if he can get up in front of people and say this, he really is.” They went so many
times over 10 years they don’t want to go anymore!

People just love the program. They know it’s real. A sheriff told me he’s seen many
programs, but he said he’d never seen one as graphic or real. I have had some bad
feedback, but out of thousands, I got maybe a dozen who didn’t like it. They were saying
they don’t think marijuana is a gateway drug. I’ll explain why it is real quick. Because it’s
not legal. If it was, I don’t think as many people would go onto meth and other things.
When it’s illegal, when you have to go to a house to a dealer to buy, they can say, “I
don’t have any weed, but try this meth.” I would push the meth on them, and the next
thing you know, they were addicted. It puts us in the world of drugs. All we care about is
making money. I don’t think marijuana’s a killer drug like meth or crack cocaine. I don’t
want you to think I’m promoting it, though.

Have suicide prevention groups said anything to you about your seminars?

Yeah, I heard a few times over the years, “You’re trying to run a shock program.” No! I
just collected photos from policemen all over the country. Over the years, it just
developed into this graphic program. I have a section on abused women and one on
child abuse. I tell them, “I’m not trying to shock the kids, I’m just trying to be real.” I
don’t know anything pretty about addiction. If I did, I’d put it in there. Hollywood’s
glamorizing that lifestyle. I just want to tell the kids the truth. I’ll cut it back sometimes.
If I go to a junior high and they say, “We don’t want to show the most graphic,” I take it
out.

What about the photos of your own experience? You don’t have people telling you that might inspire others?

No. I don’t think so. I haven’t had anybody say that. I show the crime scene photos,
which I don’t think will make anybody want to do it. I show my basketball photos, prison
photos, after prison with my wife, as the years progressed as my face changed. I don’t
show any party pictures. I think if I showed some pictures from certain areas, then it
might make them think, “Hey man, dude’s having a good time, aint’ he?” The ones I
show, I try to keep directly tied to the ways drug destroyed my life.

What goals are you still working toward?

Right now, I think I’m going to go back to school and get my counseling license. I just
wrote a book, it came out, I think, last December. I’ve been thinking about going back to
school for a number of years. I want to go because I want all my kids to go. If they see
me, they might say “Hey, Dad’s doing it,” and maybe that will inspire them. You’re never
too old or too young. Even though I’m 46, I’m not too old to go back. That’s my goal.

Is there anything else I should be asking?

The thing I always tell people is, suicide is never the answer. I told the guy at the funeral
last night, who had thought about suicide, “As long as you’re still breathing, things can
always get better.” Suicide is definitely not the right answer. Going and getting some
counseling, that would be doing people a great favor, not killing ourselves.

This isn’t easy to talk about. How would you like to make it an easier topic?

If people would do more interviews and stuff about it I think it would help. By not
talking about it and making it a shameful thing, less people want to talk about it. I know
people who’ve been through situations like me and don’t even want people to know
they went through it, there’s so much stigma and shame involved. If we did more like
that Huffington Post session, it makes it easier and helps people relax a little bit and
open up. It takes away some of the shame and let them know millions of people are
struggling like this. They need to be able to feel like nobody is going to look at you like a
second-class citizen, and you just need some help. I really don’t know the answer, but I
think if they did more education about this and let it be known that “There’s millions,
you’re not the only one, we’re going to treat you and not look at you weird,” it would
help.

I realize I didn’t ask about your wife!

She’s been doing really good also. She does all the scheduling, so she’s been a key part
from the very beginning. We moved for a couple years, then come back. The house has
been in my family five generations. My great-granddad built it. The room I shot myself
in, we didn’t like to go in, like I said before, but we eventually took that back room and
turned it into an office. I thought that was kinda cool. My wife was like, “We’ll fight
drugs from the same room we sold drugs out of.” The first couple years were really
tough, though. She got to using and had quit before I shot myself. She would go through
periods where she was really angry with me. She’d sometimes start crying. It’s been 10
years now. I don’t think she really associates me or her with that old person, it’s been so
long. It’s like thinking about somebody else’s life. She doesn’t think like it was us.

Who else are you?

I’m a dad that tries to put his kids before anything else. I never had a dad. I didn’t know
how to be a dad. But when I die, that’s what I hope the legacy I leave, my kids will be
able to say, “He was a good man.” That’s the one thing, and being a good husband.
When I play basketball, it’s with the kids. I love to go fishing and I love gardening, but
the kids don’t like to help with that. I go to soccer games, I don’t know what the heck
is going on half the time, but I’m supporting them. If I really think about it, that’s who
I am. I have kids 9 to 17 at home. The next decade, I might be able to give you another
answer. But this particular time in my life, I’m a dad. I’m trying to make up for all the
time I lost. I love them and try to put them before myself. If I’m thinking of buying a pair
of underwear for myself, I think, “Hey, do the kids need some socks?” And then I buy
them first. They’re all I think about when I’m not out working. I’m David the dad.

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A seat at the new Death Cafe

Here’s one of the more unexpected chances to talk about suicide. National Public Radio reported this month on the new Death Cafe, a series of events in the UK, the U.S. and elsewhere where people meet for tea, cake and some comfortable discussion about a sometimes uncomfortable topic. Founder Jon Underwood welcomed a post about the recent moves to give attempt survivors a voice and the need to be open to the issue. You can read it here. Early responses on the Death Cafe Facebook page were positive. “Those who have attempted suicide certainly don’t deserve the stigmas that get attached to them!” one person wrote.

Talking with Brandi Care Hicks

Brandi Care Hicks has been speaking publicly about her experience for almost 15 years. When depression hit her as a high-spirited, high-achieving teen, she didn’t realize what it was until after her suicide attempt. Now she urges teens and others to speak up before letting themselves be cornered by their own troubled thinking.

She’s noticing more people like herself talking publicly about their experiences. “The only thing that I think helps is hearing other people’s stories, knowing that it can get better,” she says. “I guess one of the biggest life lessons I’ve had is truly that we’re not perfect. You hear people talk about that, but trying to live up to that image is really just crushing you in the end.”

Here, Brandi talks about reaching out _ and knowing whom to reach out to.

Who are you? Please introduce yourself.

I am a married woman with two children, and I definitely have a typical happy life, you know, with a son and daughter and a great job. I’ve been with my corporation for almost 10 years now. Life is pretty good, but when I get the chance, I like to share my experience with depression in the past. It goes back over, gosh, close to 15 years now. I was in high school at the time, and I was the typical kind of happy-go-lucky teen, lots of friends, involved in lots of things, as far as sports and student government, and a part-time job. I got involved in a lot of social activities. In my freshman and sophomore years, I was kind of living the life, on a high of life. Everything was going great. I loved getting up for school, being with friends. Everything was sort of as it should be. I was very focused on school, I worked very hard, I stayed up all hours. I was just very energized, constantly go go go.

And I started to, in my junior year, I started to experience different things that, you know, at the time, were part of being a teen, but it was over time that things started really changing. Not so much external but internal, feelings of hopelessness, emptiness, lot of sadness. Many nights I found myself crying myself to sleep. It was really hard to concentrate in school. I could see my grades slipping, and I could not understand what the teacher was saying. I got things so easily in the past. I just couldn’t seem to keep up anymore. I felt like I was slowly losing myself. I wasn’t enjoying sports, and there were several days where I would basically claim to be sick, where it was more sadness or not being able to get through the day. Just to not have to go to practice. I ended up sleeping all afternoon. It was all sort of slowly compiling, but I never told anyone how I was feeling. I didn’t even complain about the tiredness. I started gaining a little weight. I was filling myself with food to have that full feeling. You go down the list of symptoms of depression, and I had every one, but I never once thought I was depressed. I didn’t share it with anyone and was such a busy teen that no one really questioned when I missed a practice or social gathering. “Of course she’s tired, she has so much going on.” So no one was questioning the changes. It also wasn’t very visible. I still kept a smile on my face and tried to keep things normal. Under it all, I felt like I was losing myself. I didn’t know who I was. The Brandi everybody knows was no longer who I felt inside. I was struggling. There were two different worlds getting farther apart, and I started to daydream about ways to end the misery. I distinctly remember being in biology class, feeling so defeated: “I can’t do this anymore. I can’t get through each day.” And when it got to that point, I started thinking of different ways to end this quickly, painlessly. “I don’t want to go through this pain anymore.” It was such a deep-seated emotional pain, it was hard to articulate to anybody else. Also, I was that friend that everybody relied on. I prided myself on being the one you could come to. Even the thought of sharing with my friends didn’t cross my mind. It was not part of who I was. I was the strong one who could figure things out. I was not one to complain. It wasn’t a question. It never crossed my mind. So when I started having those thoughts, kind of fleeting at first: “Oh, just to end it all.” But I wasn’t really serious. I was kind of fantasizing about ending my misery. I would try my best, when really feeling down, to surround myself with friends, try to get myself out of that, what I thought was a funk. I tried to focus on others, be cheerful, do what I could to put a smile on my face. It was kind of how I led my day to day.

I was turning 17 at the time. My brother had friends over one night, very last minute. He’s 18 months older than me, so his friends were kind of my friends. We hung out and had a good night, where I had my mind off of things. I really enjoyed myself. Then the next morning was a Sunday, a day I hated. Because Friday nights and Saturdays as a teen are an escape from reality, from commitments, schoolwork and being the Brandi everyone knew me to be. Then back to reality on Monday. I hated Sundays leading up to that week of responsibility and everything to be done. I needed to read an English book, and I distinctly remember lying on my parents’ bed trying to read and getting to the end of the page and having no idea what I had read. I could not keep my mind on the book. My mental capabilities were not there. And my mind just started going again through this pain. I was trying to work through that: “I just don’t want to feel this way anymore.” I thought, “I’ve got to write all these thoughts down.” They were racing in my mind. I grabbed a notepad and started writing. My thoughts turned into maybe a page or so, then the next page was, “Dear Mom,” and I started a suicide letter to my mom. Before I started the letter, the thought of the Chesapeake Bay Bridge came to my mind. It was a quick thought, but it was, “I can do this.” I don’t think I’d seen anything recently about it, but for whatever reason, that moment it jumped into my mind. I would hit water, go unconscious, feel no pain and this all would be over. A simple answer, I thought. “I can’t go on.” And I had mentally come to the conclusion. And started writing this letter to my mom. It was really hard. I started crying, but at that moment I had made that decision. “This is it. No turning back.” I kind of got tunnel vision. I had no second-guessing what I had to do. While writing that, one of my brothers asked me to give him a ride to the local marina. I quickly covered my tears up. “Sure, no problem.” I finished the letter. That was kind of the moment of getting me out the door.

I put the note between the two seats. We had a normal conversation, but I realized I had no money for the toll for the bridge, so I asked him for cash for Taco Bell on the way back. He gave me a few dollars. He got out of the car, and I said, “I love you.” It’s not like I said that every single time, but it was not too ordinary that I said that to him. He left, and again I kind of broke down: “Oh my gosh, I’m really about to do this.” I really had tunnel vision. I quickly thought of him, my mom and dad and my other brothers, and I really put that to the side. “I’ve got to end this pain.” That was my tunnel vision, to get to the bridge. There was all this traffic that day, and I was so frustrated: “I need to do this now.” Long story short, leading up to the jump, on the way there I had picked a spot where I thought I would jump. When I got to that spot, I literally pulled the car over, stepped up three steps from the railing, and jumped. There was no hesitation. There was no second thought. I think I at least had thought of putting my hazards on. I didn’t want others to get hurt.

I remember you know, the three words in my mind when I jumped: “This is it.” Those three little words. And I felt pitch black. Sometimes they say when someone is about to die, they have flashbacks of childhood or dreams of what they’ll miss. I had none of that. Pitch black and three words, and I remember feeling my stomach drop. Afterwards, experts said that where I jumped was close to 130 feet. I’m not sure. I remember hit the water, like hitting brick. It was an incredible impact. And really, it was just shock then. I actually opened my eyes under water, seeing brown all around me, thinking, “Oh my gosh, I don’t know which way to go, will it end here? What’s happening?” And I instinctively swam to the top and let out a huge scream, like pure horror, because I never had in my mind thought that it wouldn’t work, that I would not die that day. So shock and survival instantly kicked in. I didn’t know what to do. I certainly felt numb in the bottom half of my body. Incredible pain, like I had never experienced before. And at some point a boat came towards me and threw a life jacket. They at some point threw me a rope and pulled me in. But I was in excruciating pain. I was screaming in terror. My body was like, every single tiny movement was shooting horrible streaks of pain. I was in shock mode, like people were trying to help and I was accepting the help, but at the same time I was kind of screaming at them because my body hurt so bad. “Don’t touch me!”

They had to drive me back to the coast, of course, and horrible pain. If you think about it, it was choppy water. I think they tried to go slow, but I was just screaming the whole time. They called 911, and a trauma helicopter was there. I was transported to shock trauma in Maryland. And all of this was still a blur. I guess I was taken in, given a bunch of tests and all that. Again, I’m not sure how much time passed. Before I saw family and friends, a nurse came in. At this point, I’m not sure if she was a medical nurse or a mental illness nurse. She was coming in and saying, “Do you think you’re depressed?” That was the first time that word was associated with everything I was experiencing. I never thought, “Oh, is this depression?” I never associated it with me when I heard it before. I thought it was something someone experienced because of a specific event. Someone goes through a horrible divorce, or a mom loses a child to a car accident. I never thought it happens to a happy-go-lucky teen that has everything going for them. I honestly don’t remember how I reacted to her, but I remember thinking, “Is that it? Maybe it is. I don’t know.”

My parents came in and, long story short, I didn’t stay in shock trauma long. We tried one mental illness program that night, but it was not the right fit, so later that night I ended up at a psych unit of a hospital in the area. I ended up there a week. I kind of had full inpatient for a week. I remember being there, and maybe it was the first or second day, but at some point I was waiting for a group session and I was looking through a magazine about mental health, and I saw a list about depression, the list of symptoms. And I’m seeing “feeling of sadness, emptiness, helplessness, loss of concentration, overeating …” I’m going, “Check, check, check.” For me, that was the moment I truly associated it with what I was going through. I could’ve gotten the help! It was just a realization. For a period, I had a real high: “I know what this is, this is curable!” I had this sense of energy. “I’m going to figure this out and be 100 percent again! I’ll get meds, it’s gonna be great.” I really went through this high. And then reality hit. It’s not that easy. I was definitely comforted that there was a name for this, that other people had gone through it, that it was treatable, but it was a hard reality. You don’t cure this overnight. That was the start to my long road to recovery. Years of therapy, years of meds for some time.

And I started sharing my story. It sort of came about from sharing with friends informally, just opening up and saying, “These are my true thoughts and feelings.” And then, I guess, you know, stories just get out, and someone reached out for an interview for the newspaper. Then Oprah, and “Dateline” and different magazines. It kind of turned into an opportunity for a mental health awareness organization wanting me to speak at one of their events. And then it built to other events. So this obviously transpired over the years. I think it was 15 years, because it was May of ’98. A quick recap: I started going back to school senior year, but it was really hard to focus on my health and getting better. I needed to say “no” to a lot of activities. I had been elected president of my class, I had field hockey, all of these things already set to do that I had to say “No” to. I couldn’t be this everything to everyone else while trying to get myself healthy again. I got approval for home schooling, and it was a huge blessing. I started a new part-time job, found new friends, discovered myself all over again through a different avenue instead of being the  Brandi everyone knew me to be at high school. I started to figure out who I was again, and that was a huge part of my recovery. And I stayed close with the good friends I had before. A very close network had been there for me.

I remember going to college and being very scared that this could hit again. I remember, it’s kind of embarrassing and silly to say, but I remember having a freshman biology class and actually studying and grasping it. It was such a good feeling: “My mind, it’s healthy again. I can learn, I can study and grasp things.” Kind of that validation for me: “I am back to that person I am.” I went to one of the counselors on campus just to share my story: “I need to tell you this, to have someone on campus to talk to in case I have feelings again.” Kind of a safety net. When it happens again, I don’t want to have to rehash the story. I didn’t necessarily go to her on a consistent basis, but I knew that if something was to change, I could go to her.

So that’s where that kind of brings me to today. I have a whole program I go through. I show the “Dateline” piece that NBC did, I tell the story, then I show them a slide show at end, show how my life is today. I lead a very successful, “normal” life. It’s not perfect by any means, or happy-go-lucky either. In the past couple years I had bouts of anxiety. I’ve had periods of sadness. I’ve gone back to the therapist as an adult to get a handle on situations I’ve gone through. It’s never been that severe. In my opinion, it’s because I accepted it as an illness. And I know the triggers that cause stress. And I just talk about it now. I have an amazing husband who lets me vent, lets me cry for no reason, talk through my emotions. I have great friends. I have a girlfriend now who works with me, we were friends in high school, and we meet for lunch every week. I joke that she’s my counseling session. It’s my chance to chat with someone who knew me through it all. I can open up to her and know she’s not going to judge me. It helps provide that perspective, that reality perspective. Sometimes we can get so deep in our thoughts that we’re not thinking logically anymore. Depression really altered my mental capabilities, and I look back now on those thoughts, and it was really a depressed mind making those decisions. I can see the difference in how my healthy, logical mind operates and how it operated before. I have to remind myself to keep that healthy, logical mind. If I don’t tell others how I’m thinking, I can easily get into the trap of thinking it’s logical. If I don’t have someone to put it into perspective for me, I can easily get sucked back in. I’m much more open, I talk much more about my inner thoughts and feelings. Again, it doesn’t take away the challenges, but it’s manageable.

And I feel I’m in a really good place. I like to share my story because I want people to know that depression or thoughts of suicide can happen to everyone. And if I had known depression could happen to an outgoing, happy girl, and if I had opened and up and shared what I was feeling, I feel that if I had done it early enough, one, maybe I had never gone into thoughts of suicide, I could have coped, or, if I had gotten to that point, at least I could have had that hope that it was treatable. But I didn’t have any of that. I didn’t have the education. I didn’t communicate. I wasn’t open with others. So that’s kind of my long-winded story. But that’s the journey I walk people through.

How do you know how to find the right people to confide in?

I don’t know if there’s a black-and-white answer. You have to know who your friends are. It’s all about who you trust. I try the best I can to say, “This is a lot to put on another teen. They may not know how to react. That’s OK, you can share, but you have to also share with an adult, whether it’s a friend’s parent, a teacher you’re comfortable with, a pastor, your own parents, but you’ve got to find someone who logistically knows how to get you professional help.” I really feel, too, you really should speak to a professional. Even if you open up to a friend or parents, this is someone who has an unbiased view and can assess the issues. There are teens out there going through the aches and pains of being a growing teen, and some of it is figuring it out. A parent isn’t going to be able to identify that. It’s getting to a professional. I also feel that a big part of society is getting people to give that person a chance to be there for them. What I mean is, we talk about how to react if someone does share. You have to take it seriously. Don’t take as a joke. You’ve got to tell an adult. Don’t worry about if they’re not going to be friends with you. You could have saved their life. One of the things I still deal with today, I still get little emotional, is how my attempt affected my friends and family. I never gave them the opportunity to be there for me. I never gave them that chance because I chose to keep it all inside. It still breaks my heart today. My friends probably had that question, “Why didn’t Brandi think I was a good enough friend? Did she think I wasn’t there for her?” For me, that’s so far from the truth. And it had nothing to do with my parents being there for me. It was about me accepting that responsibility and being OK to share my inner thoughts and feelings, to live up to that image. You know, it just gets to me. It’s letting people know how important it is and letting people know that if someone shares, they’re putting a lot of trust in you. They’re being brave, trying to get help for you. So there’s no black-and-white answer knowing who that right person is, but knowing the importance of determining who that person is.

You mentioned living up to an image. So many people want to appear perfect and fear disappointing others by not being good enough, especially teens. And suicide rates are high among doctors and lawyers, for example, people who push themselves. How do you get over this?

It is a huge hurdle. The only thing that I think helps is hearing other people’s stories, knowing that it can get better. I guess one of the biggest life lessons I’ve had is truly that we’re not perfect. You hear people talk about that, but trying to live up to that image is really just crushing you in the end. I found that since I opened up and became more open in sharing with people in general, people are drawn to others that admit their shortcomings or things they are going through, being open to saying they need help. I’ve found that people are even more drawn to me when I open up because they can relate. “She’s not up on that pedestal. She’s just like me.” I had so many e-mails, letters written to me, some strangers saying, “Thank you,” knowing someone is out there who’s been through this. A typical teen who had so much going for them. It brought me so much comfort. I’m still very high-achieving. It’s part of my personality that won’t go away. I work so hard at work. But I’m very open about work-related and other challenges. What am I struggling with? And being able to laugh about it. I know it’s pie-in-the sky stuff, but you kind of have to get back to those principles, educating people that this is life and nobody’s going to be perfect. It has helped me connect with people more. I have more sympathy for people going through this. You build stronger relationships, networking, through sharing experiences. When you allow yourself to be vulnerable, it strengthens friendships. Teens are just learning how to build relationships, how to trust people. I don’t think there’s a magic answer. Just continuing to talk and open up about the positives.

What have been some of the more striking reactions to your talks? And how have the reactions changed over the years?

There have been surprising reactions. One stands out. I did a parent night once, and the parents were very grateful. They got a lot of insights, and we talked about how to break down stigma. And then I had a mother say to me, “I don’t want my daughter to speak to the guidance counselor because I’m afraid she will put it in her file and it’s going to be in her file that there’s a mental illness issue, and that could prevent her from getting into some colleges.” And I was really taken back. And she was being completely honest. This is really the thought in parents’ minds, how it will affect in the long term. I spoke about the mental illness programs at colleges, that, “Really, your child’s health _ their life _ should be number one, not their education. This is her health you’re talking about, and you need to put that first, and she needs to speak to someone. In my mind, what college you get into is not important at this stage of the game.” And I’m sure it went in one ear and out the other.

Do you think it’s easier for a younger person to come back from an attempt, and why?

Unfortunately, I don’t think I have a good perspective on that. I haven’t had that mindset as an adult, so it’s hard for me to really compare. I guess I would say that of course, in general, teenagers have a different kind of pressure on them, image-wise, and being able to deal with the emotions and hormones of everything they’re going through, so I definitely think it’s different. Of course, there’s just the pure opportunity they have, many more years, and they are kind of young in adult life to kind of restart, and that’s a benefit to them. When it happened, I had not graduated high school, and it gave me an opportunity to refocus, to learn who I was again in order to then get healthy, go to college, kind of restart. I would think potentially it would be harder as an adult. Certainly they have a lot more responsibility if they’re a parent, have a job, a career. Taking time to fully recover, get treatment … I was in inpatient for a week, I went through a lot of therapy, and I had to step back from a lot of responsibility. Being class president, having a part-time job, I had to step away from all of this to focus on myself to get better. I was in a situation where I was living with my parents and could do all that. I would think in that state of mind, it probably would be harder in a place in life where you can’t push everything aside and focus on yourself.

And do you think it’s easier for a younger person to speak openly, or publicly, about it?

I don’t think I would have great perspective on that, either. It probably depends on the personality of that person. I got a very welcoming, supportive reception. I did have a great support network to begin with, and it was very healing to share my story, to speak afterwards. There is that stigma when you’re going through the issues, but it’s probably equally difficult if you’re not necessarily someone who opens up and shares about challenges. I think it would be the same regardless of your age.

Should more people be coming out about their experience? And what have you noticed in terms of openness about this topic in the years that you’ve been talking about it?

I think absolutely, I don’t see any reason why someone who experienced this should not share it with others. I think obviously there’s a time and place for everything. I think wherever there’s an opportunity to share with others, you know, the hard time you’ve been through, how you’ve come through, in my mind, only good comes out of that. It helps people connect to it. I absolutely think it’s important. For me, I’ve definitely seen a difference in people being open about it, but I couldn’t tell you if it’s a true evolution over time or it’s really just me being different from a teen to an adult. When going through it all, I didn’t know I was depressed. I didn’t equate someone kind of like myself being depressed, having a suicide attempt. Over the years, talking to people, it seems much more open now. I’ve spoken to so many high schools, where no one ever came to us about that topic. I feel like I see it more on the news, celebrities opening up about the struggles they had. I don’t know whether I’m more attuned to it. But growing up, the only significant exposure I remember having, at least with celebrities, was, of course, Kurt Cobain. But that was really the only significant event. I don’t remember hearing about depression or bipolar or other mental illnesses. I feel like I’m hearing it more now. At least personally, speaking with friends, I feel like in my network of friendship support, everyone is much more open to sharing about tough times. You don’t have to act like everything is great all the time. I feel I have a good support system where all is open, we can vent.

If you could change anything about the way society talks about suicidal thinking, what would you change?

I think the biggest thing about suicidal thinking that I would want to come across better, from my experience, is if you’re truly depressed or have suicidal thoughts, you’re not necessarily _ your mind is not fully healthy, thinking rationally. It’s not like a rational person saying, “OK, I don’t want to be here tomorrow, and I’m making this choice and giving up.” If you haven’t experienced it and the thinking, just seems so hard to understand, it’s like, “Just talk to someone. Why would you choose to end your life?” If you’re working with a mind that doesn’t see things clearly, basically your own mind is telling you lies. When I think back to the person I was, the thoughts I had, I almost feel it wasn’t me. Yes, it was me because I recall those thoughts. But the Brandi I am, I’m a logical person. But my mind was not operating in that way for several months. People told me my mind was sick. I needed to somehow get treatment to get healthy in order not to go down that path. It truly is your mind not functioning 100 percent.

How about any changes to the way suicidal thinking is treated, in a mental health sense?

You know, I read an article recently. I can’t remember where or the whole context, I just remember a mother talking about the challenges with her mentally ill son, the challenges she had with him behaviorally. She felt the only help she could get from the system was if she basically got in trouble with the law. If his actions somehow broke the law, because then he could get treatment through that. I don’t know, what I wish could be different is, we would really look at mental illness as a _ something on its own needs should be treated, regardless of situation. If behavioral issues or other things are associated, don’t wait for that to trigger treatment. You have to look out ahead of time to get to what the key problem is. As opposed to not offering the resources when they’re needed.

Anything to add?

I feel the need to kind of go back to it: For those people who haven’t experienced it directly, who don’t really understand mental illness, I guess I would really urge them to get educated to learn more about it, to learn that it is an illness, that it’s not something you can snap out of. That’s part of the stigma, like, “What’s wrong with you? Pick yourself up!” It just puts guilt back on the person if it’s truly a mental illness. Your brain is not healthy. You need to get treated for it. It’s not something you can just snap out of. That’s really hard for people to get. Some people think it’s almost a choice, choosing to have a bad day. It’s so much more than that. You just want people to learn more about it so if they have a friend, a family member, they can be more sympathetic and let them know they’re not alone, they can get help, they can’t just figure it out themselves.

Someone wrote to me saying her father told her that her attempt was just a way to get attention. What would you say in her place?

That’s a hard one. What would I say to him? I think you want to know where he’s coming from, his history or exposure. I think the key is to go back to the facts. Men are pretty logical. I’m speaking generally here. But maybe going back to the facts: “There are symptoms associated with an illness. I am seeing those symptoms. I’m having these thoughts.” I don’t mean to put words in her mouth. To go through all of those symptoms and say, “I need help. I need treatment. It’s the way my brain is thinking, and I want to get healthy again.” It’s helping her get out of the emotional state of things: “It’s just how I feel.” However she can articulate that there’s a clear list of symptoms she’s experiencing. Mine was not a call for help because I really thought I was going to end my life. I wasn’t doing it so people would know I need help. But I can understand if someone’s gotten to the point where they don’t know what else to do. So they’re doing this. “But hey, if you can help me, figure this out, find another way.” … I’ve heard that from several other people. If someone in the family is having a hard time with it, it’s usually the father.

On The Huffington Post

A rare story in the mainstream media about attempt survivors: The Huffington Post today featured three people, including Sabrina Strong, and included links to this site, the American Association of Suicidology’s new site for attempt survivors and the national portrait project Live Through This. You can watch the video segment here.

If you’d like to be interviewed for this site and share your own story, welcome.

Talking with Mike Bush

“I changed from being a senior psychiatric social worker one day to being a mental health user the next day on the opposite side of the table. A very strange kind of bizarre experience.”

Mike Bush is one of the many people in mental health who’ve had their own experience with suicidal thinking and actions, though few speak out as openly as he has. I came across him while researching mainstream mental health groups in the UK, intrigued by their focus on campaigns for rights and social justice. Mike played an early role in organizing support for loss survivors after losing his father to suicide four decades ago. Years later, he became suicidal himself. Clinical depression, he found, was far harder than bereavement _ and he feels he still hasn’t adjusted to his father’s death.

Here, Mike talks about finding Christianity during his recovery, his latest campaign to help other caregivers protect themselves from stress and the tight bonds between the poor economy and despair: “You slash people’s services, benefits, the economic situation is in peril, it has a very detrimental effect on well-being. This is what’s happening.”

Who are you? Please introduce yourself.

I’m, well, I suppose I wear a lot of hats. I’ve been actively suicidal myself, and I’ve been bereaved through suicide. I lost my father over 40 years ago now. I worked 30 years as a mental health social worker. So I’ve been involved in lots of campaigning on suicide issues, particularly bereavement, a very important part of suicide prevention. If you don’t support those left behind, you’ll get further suicides, you know? Certainly in Britain, which has one suicide every 90 minutes, every suicide has six to eight people who are deeply affected, but many more than that are also affected. So yeah, it’s been a central issue for me ever since my father died. I’ve been involved with a group for 15 years, and I’m involved in setting up another group with better information and networking between agencies.

How much did losing your father affect your own experience? And how much time has passed?

Research shows that if you’re bereaved, you’re more likely to have mental health problems and an increased risk of suicide yourself. Obviously any great trauma, like losing someone through suicide, takes its toll. I don’t think I ever reached adjustment. I lost my mother from cancer when I was 15. It was over 40 years ago when this happened, but my father’s death was three years later and that feels sort of like it happened five or six years ago. More recent in memory. I think you don’t ever reach an adjustment through losing someone through suicide. At best, you reach an accommodation. I’ve adjusted to my mother’s loss, but my father’s feels like it happened far more recently. All bereavement is really hard, but with suicide you’re bereaved by that person’s hand, so that makes it uniquely difficult for those left behind. A whole kaleidoscope of emotions and feelings swirling through your mind constantly and “What if?” questions that people torture themselves with. There’s a book, “A Special Scar,” that says bereavement is like a personal holocaust. It really seriously messes up people’s lives. That’s why I’m passionate about people getting support and help. The best way is peer support. They better understand what it’s like.

You’ve been pushing for more support for this over the past 30 years?

Yeah! A long time

What was support like back then?

Well, we set up a group in the early ’90s. At that time, there was no support at all in the area. We had people coming from all Yorkshire, from all the way around. There was just nothing else around. The situation’s improved in the more recent years. There are quite a few branches around for survivors of bereavement suicide. I’m in the process of setting up a branch. They have a national helpline people can ring. I have a national campaign going on 38 Degrees calling for a national suicide bereavement service. It’s done really well in Australia. I think we need the same over here. In Britain, it really depends on where you live. Some have quite decent support, others none at all.

Where did you get support?

When my father took his life, it was just what my sister and I could provide to each other. Really tough. And so when I worked as a mental health social worker in Leeds, in the early 1990s, one day I saw a letter on the bulletin board about the idea of setting up a group for those bereaved. The words jumped off the page at me. A great idea. I contacted the mental health chaplain, he had lost his father through suicide. We set up the Leeds organization of survivors of suicide. We used to meet twice a month for a couple of hours. And we would see people individually, because groups are not for everyone. We’d like people to come to the group if possible. We learned an awful lot about suicide issues. We’d get so many different stories.

What surprised you?

It was not at all uncommon for us to be dealing with families with more than one suicide. If somebody close to you takes their life, it’s like the Rubicon’s been crossed, like it gives you permission to follow the same. When my father died, I sort of wanted to do it, to be with him. I’ve worked with a family where there have been three suicides. So this is why it’s so important that you try to provide the best support to people. To prevent this happening. We can’t bring people back to life again, but we can enter into that suffering and share with it. One of the first things people tend to ask the support group is, “Have you been bereaved by suicide?” We can say that. I’ll always remember a man who came in, he had been seen by a clinical psychologist for two years, but he said, “I’ve found it more helpful tonight than those two years. This has been indescribably helpful to me.” One thing we also found is, the majority of people who came were mothers, girlfriends, wives. We’d rarely see men. That doesn’t entirely surprise me. In Britain, two-thirds of suicides are male. Issues around masculinity, be strong, you can’t show feelings. A lot of men aren’t good with the emotional stuff.

How did you get into your work as a mental health social worker?

I got into it quite honestly because my mother was a very caring, supportive person. She helped a lot of people locally, and she set me a really good example. And I kind of got involved in volunteer work in school. I realized when I was 13 or 14 that I wanted to be a social worker. So it was before I lost my mother and father. But part of going into mental health social work is what happened to my father, yeah.

How have you protected yourself, with all of the work you do?

I lost my father when I was 18. I kind of buried myself in my work. It was my way of coping. I didn’t want to be emotionally close to people. I didn’t want to get too close to anyone because of the impact of the loss. So I kind of threw myself into social work. And you can work 24-7 in social work if you want to. It was my way of coping, rightly or wrongly.

Did you feel like you had to save people?

I just wanted to be involved in helping people across the board. Obviously, my personal experience informed my understanding. So yeah, it contributed to it in that sense.

Did you tell people about your experience?

Not in my professional role, no. But certainly in the work I did with the loss group.

(I mention how it might be helpful for clients to know the person they’re confiding in has had their own experience, but professional boundaries prevent that.)

On occasion, I have told. There are times when it’s appropriate to disclose, and I have done it. But there are other occasions when it doesn’t feel appropriate to do that. So you have to use your judgment about that.

How did your own suicidal experience come about? Your e-mail mentioned overwork.

This was many years later. I had far too much on my plate. I was doing two social work jobs, covering for someone else who was out for months. I was working in a tough area with the community health team. Also, I was on three or four different management committees, plus I was working a lot with people bereaved by suicide, straight after work or sometimes during my lunch break. Also, I was suffering with a bad sleep disorder and was tired all the time. I was a union rep. I was struggling but basically coping. My boss was very good. But unfortunately for me, our boss left and the boss from hell came along, who literally would scream and shout, throw things about. I had three colleagues who were so distressed they were crying on my shoulders. I would take up grievance procedures with management.

Long story short, stress builds up and up. Anxiety, not sleeping for days, and everything was spinning out of control. I just couldn’t cope, go on any longer. I got on very well with the manager of the community psychiatric nursing, we talked things through, and we both realized I needed help, to get away from it. She drove me to see my general practicioner, my GP, and I went in to see her and she said to me, “You know a lot more about mental health than I do. What do you want to do?” I said I’d assessed myself as needing to see a consultant psychiatrist.

I changed from being a senior psychiatric social worker one day to being a mental health user the next day on the opposite side of the table. A very strange kind of bizarre experience. I was so used to being in the helping role. And now finding I was useless and needing help myself. Very difficult. I can’t put into words how much I learned, what real mental distress was actually about. No academic learning can give you that. That lived experience. It was an education in many ways.

Any examples of what you learned that you had thought you knew?

It made me understand how useless and vulnerable you can feel, frightened, terrified out of your mind. You have no energy at all. Just walking across the room was like climbing Everest. I couldn’t decide whether I wanted a cup of tea or coffee, whether to turn left or right. These simple things seemed too much. Depression consumes every atom of your being. That’s what makes it so difficult to deal with. It changes your whole way of thinking. You lose all hope. You lose all … yeah. You just lose everything. Even my sense of taste. Everything used to taste like cardboard. It affects you in every sphere of your life. I’d have given everything I owned for five minutes of respite.

How does it compare with the sadness of losing someone? Is sadness sadness, or are the two different?

Completely. Grief bereavement is very hard. But clinical depression is far harder. It affects you in a far deeper way. Yeah.

How did you get out of it?

I was very lucky. Two things: I have an exceptionally good wife and an exceptionally good psychiatrist, who was very good at listening and understanding what I went through. Very therapeutic in the whole interaction. He was also very supportive to my wife. He really was excellent. I can’t say I felt the medication helped me, very strong antidepressants, tranquillisers and mood stabilizers. I’m not sure how much that helped or not. A lot of drugs didn’t seem to work. The best medication was how he was with me. I think it was the passage of time, thinking things through, that played a part. Wife, friends.

Interestingly, I became a Christian. One day when I felt particularly suicidal, I felt myself turning to the local church. I’d always been a strong atheist, but a very good friend of mine had been a priest, a vicar, and he’s just a great guy, we were very close friends. He said one day, “Come in and join is, the water’s warm.” His smile would light up the room. That phrase was going round in my mind when I found myself walking to the local vicar’s house. Something was strongly saying to me, “Go see the vicar.” I did. He was in, very supportive. He talked to me about something called the Alpha Course, an introduction to Christianity. I basically became involved with that. Intellectually, I couldn’t take it, but I did pick up the love and concern that was around me. Particularly a woman who had suffered from depression, she gave me the hope that things would get better. What she said, but also how she said it. To me, it was my first conscious experience of the love of God, you know?

I started going to the church and people asked, “Can we pray for you?” I felt like that was something really important. It acted as validation. I wasn’t getting that from psychiatric services because of professional boundaries. It was something that mattered to me a great deal. We are three elements: mind, body and spirit. I feel there’s a spiritual dimension to depression. We are these three elements for optimum health. These three elements are interrelated. So that was an important part of my recovery, becoming a Christian. My faith is very important to me now.

How long did it take before you felt well?

I began to sort of pull out of my depression after about 12 months. You can imagine a big factory, like a big power plant, with the turbines and generators, and in my case it was like all of a sudden one of the generators came to life, started to move, then got faster, then others started to work. I felt life returning to me, coming back into me. A wonderful feeling. The darkness lifted, and I started to see life in colour. It was the most wonderful thing, and once it started to pick up, it picked up pretty quickly.

It became very important to me that I became involved in user and carer voluntary work. I threw myself into that heart and soul. It got me using my brain again, meeting with people. It wasn’t formally written into my care plan. I stumbled upon it myself and found it very helpful. It took me three years before I got back into working as a social worker. It kind of built up my confidence bit by bit. Initially I thought I would never work again, then maybe I’d work a lower-level job. Then I thought, “Why not get back into social work?” I’d always loved it, loved the people. It wasn’t that social work had made me ill, it was the really a bad bullying management experience, and too much on my plate. An important part of my recovery was to get back into social work. I did it for another five years.

How old are you now?

59.

How did you get into speaking out?

I feel I’ve always been a pretty outspoken person, perhaps even more so now. I realized the importance of being upfront and honest. And also the importance of using the experience to convey to other people insights and understandings. I read a very good article in the British Medical Journal by the president of the Royal College of Psychiatrists, called “Doctors as Patients,” about his own experiences of depression. I felt this was good, this guy was able to do that. And it kind of made me think, “I should write an article.” I wrote about my own experience and got it published in a counseling and psychotherapy journal. I also wrote about becoming a Christian. I found the writing very therapeutic. I was in floods of tears while writing it. Heart-wrenching, really, but also very healing. A very useful thing to do. I think others have found that as well. I also wanted to convey to other people the sense of hope as well. It’s one of the things you have to do when helping people in mental distress. Hope is one of the first casualties. I think the important thing in helping people is to hold hope for them. They can lose the capacity to hold hope.

What have been the reactions to your being open about this?

I think it’s been very positive. Fortunately, I’ve not had any negative responses. People have said they found it very moving. It’s helped them to understand. Yeah, it’s been positive.

It seems like more people are speaking openly, and there are more anti-stigma and awareness campaigns. But the suicide rate keeps going up. What needs to happen?

I can only talk about my country, Britain. Certainly over here, we’ve got a lot of problems. With mental health problems, there’s a macro thing and micro elements. Over here, we’ve got awful problems with a right-wing government slashing and burning our welfare state and trying to privatise our precious National Health Service. It seems hell-bent on privatizing whatever it can. A lot of services, as well as other health and care services, are being slashed. It’s hitting disabled people particularly hard, including people with mental health problems.

We’ve also got a terrible recession. A lot of poor and disabled people, and over a million young people, can’t get work. The people who are at work are worried about losing their jobs, being made redundant. They can’t afford mortgage payments. A lot turn to soup kitchens, food banks, as we call them here. Parents go without food so children can eat. It’s just dreadful. Obviously, mental health is affected by these social economic issues. It’s not rocket science to work out why. You slash people’s services, benefits, the economic situation is in peril, it has a very detrimental effect on well-being. This is what’s happening. A really bad scene.

How to make this a more comfortable topic?

Very difficult, isn’t it? I do think education is vitally important. I think we should be teaching children right from the early ages the importance of looking after themselves. I do a lot of work now, I teach on university courses, a lot of work on what I call looking after ourselves, strategies for protecting and promoting the mental health of people in caring professions. There’s so much pressure now in Britain, with less people to do more and more work. Demands are increasing. I think social work is bad at addressing this whole agenda of looking after ourselves. When I did my own course back then, there was nothing. I’ve been doing sessions on this seven years now.

I was astonished. I was talking with social workers in their third year of their degree course. I asked, “Prior to me, had you done anything on this at all?” “No, we haven’t looked at it.” It’s crazy, because you’re training people do one of the most stressful jobs. It seems ludicrous. It’s easy, if you’re committed and conscientious and in the stress of meeting other people’s needs, to forget about your own, and stress is very insidious. It takes over bit by bit. It becomes normal to you. Then all you need is a bit of extra pressure and stress, and you’re over the edge. If you don’t fill your tank, it runs on fumes and it stops. You know?

(I ask about the tension or misunderstanding at times between the bereaved and attempt survivors, sometimes after confusion over the term “suicide survivor.”)

I came within a breath of taking my life. Obviously as someone who was suicidal myself, I understand what depression is, what it does to people. If you haven’t had that experience, you can’t fully understand it. There are some experiences you have to have in life to fully understand. You know, some people, if they’ve lost someone, they feel a whole kaleidoscope of feelings. They also feel angry and resentful at the person leaving them with the wreckage of it all. So their level of understanding is very skewed, very limited. So that’s why you get that reaction from some people. They don’t understand, so they tend to get angry about it. I do agree with you very strongly, there’s a need for groups for people feeling suicidal to get support. I agree it’s a desperate need. A need also to provide support to their friends and relatives. I know that’s an area of the national suicide prevention strategy for England.

Your writing has mentioned Maytree and the Leeds crisis center. Do you know of others?

Those are the two main ones. We are desperately short of crisis houses, crisis centers. A real big need. We really should have one in every town and city. Because it gets away from the medical model, away from the psychiatric pharmacy approach to mental distress, and provides a wider, holistic approach. I think that’s something really important. It’s actually a lot cheaper than putting someone in a psychiatric hospital, and a lot less stigmatising. I think you’re talking about my blog on the Mind site. We have kind of  postcode lottery. Some areas, people get good care, some bad.

What else would you like to see changed?

I think the really important issue is education. The importance of understanding emotions and well-being, developing strategies to build emotional resilience. For everyone. To learn how to be mentally healthy. We get a lot of stuff about physical health. Not about mental health well-being. You go into the GP and there’s loads of stuff on the wall about physical health problems but often nothing at all about mental health. There’s a report called “No health without mental health.” Supposedly, there’s supposed to be equal parity between the two. How we feel mentally will affect us physically, and the other way around. I’m afraid when it comes to reality, it doesn’t measure up. Mental health services tend to be one of the first things that get slashed back.

(I ask for his impressions on mental health groups in the UK like Mind, which seem to put more importance on rights and social justice than the large mainstream groups in the U.S.)

I think Mind is very good. Also, there’s another organization called Rethink that deals with serious mental health issues, they do very good work as well. Also the Mental Health Foundation. We’re lucky, we’ve got some very good national mental health organizations. Another one is called the Depression Alliance. They all have a very strong campaigning arm to them. We are lucky in that respect.

You do automatically think of rights and social justice in terms of mental health in the UK?

Yes, we have what’s called a psychiatric survivor movement. As a result of experiences in the old what were called lunatic asylums, there was a feeling built up that it was so terribly wrong how people were treated. People formed associations for a more enlightened approach, and gradually through the years organizations like Mind were established. Another organization is called Papyrus, which specializes in supporting young people who are suicidal.

In everyday life, how will people react if someone talks openly about their experience?

I think it’s a mixed bag. Generally, it’s respected that users and carers are important people, that their stories should be heard. But in reality, it’s a mixed picture. In some areas, there’s some really genuine user involvement, taken seriously. There are other areas where it’s very tokenistic, not really embedded in practice. Very superficial.

Do you worry that the depression will come back, and how do you protect yourself?

I think what’s really important is, certainly, the mental health system over here isn’t always terribly good at helping people stay well. I think the important thing, obviously, is to help people stay well. I learned the hardest possible way the importance of mental health, how central it is to your whole life. I learned a valuable lesson myself, understanding myself, the trigger points, understanding the importance of being mentally healthy. Having meaning, purpose, friendship. Enjoying life, in other words. In my case, my faith as well is important. I’ve got to say I don’t worry. I feel very positive. I feel I’ve got my life very well on stream.

What a mental breakdown does is, it brings you sharp up against yourself, forces you to take stock of your entire life and to really work out what you need to do about that to change your life to a more positive sort of pattern. One of the most useful things I read was a brilliant book, called “Depressive Illness, The curse of the strong.” Very interesting, because it makes the point that often people who are very committed, very conscientious are often more prone to have stress and depression because those who aren’t so much won’t take things on so much, they will drop out of things. The others will carry on, soaking up stuff all the time. Those who aren’t don’t get so stressed or become depressed. It made a lot of sense. I’ve lent it out to a lot of other people. It was recommended to me by the Depression Alliance. It’s by a psychiatrist, but it takes a holistic approach. So I think books can be very helpful. I actually said to my psychiatrist, “You know, this is a book you might like to refer to patients. It’s not the question of getting them well, it’s helping them stay well.” Fortunately, I’ve been discharged from him for many years.

Who else are you?

I am very committed to my mental health work. It’s a very important part but, as you say, it’s not the sole part. And it would not be mentally healthy for it to be so. I’m teaching these sessions to social work students, and if I can’t realize the importance of looking after myself, I can’t teach others, yeah? So I have lots of other interests. My friends matter a great deal. I enjoy ecotherapy, the sort of walking with people in green areas, enjoying nature. To me, one of the best things in life is to go on a walk with friends. That is one of most therapeutic things you can do. Ecotherapy is at least as effective as antidepressants in mild to moderate depression. I’ve got an interest in Roman history. I’ve got an interest in astronomy. I like gardening. I’m into photography and computers. Yeah, I also like music a lot. So it’s very important, no matter how committed and conscientious about your work, very important to do things that have nothing to do with that work. So, rest and relaxation are really important. And you’ll work far more effectively as well.

Talking with Natalie De Stefano

This is a story about someone who worked for years in suicide prevention, knew and preached the coping skills and still ended up trying to kill herself. Natalie De Stefano wrote to me last month, and her story leapt off the page.

Imagine having a migraine, or living on the brink of one, for 20 years. And finding no medications that help. And being told, “Hang on ’til after menopause.” Natalie tried. As she counseled suicidal veterans as a case manager, she wore sunglasses and kept her pills nearby. She loves her work, And then last year, the pain got worse. She began having migraines every day, with nausea and vomiting. After her attempt, she was in a coma for more than a week. She woke up angry.

And pretty bewildered. Her psychiatrist told her he couldn’t see her for three months. “So I sat at home wondering what the heck was I supposed to do. Nobody could relate to me.” In her work, she wrote, “we made sure veterans had follow-up appointments, phone calls, letters, cards, support group meeting appointments, and they were always welcome to call me or drop by anytime. I look at what is happening to me and think, ‘Huh, this is rather strange.'” Finally, her boss at the VA hospital stepped in to take over her care.

Here, Natalie talks about the special challenges of comforting veterans, the national pilot project of veterans’ support groups for attempt survivors and, of course, her most recent lesson in suicide prevention.

I’m a nurse at a VA hospital. I was in the Navy seven years, and so I wanted to be there and serve fellow veterans. Being a nurse is something I decided to do later in life, but I really enjoy it. I really enjoy having vets to talk to. I have a good rapport and understand where they’re coming from because I’ve been exposed to, well, I’ve had depression a lot of my life. I had a lot of the same problems. I know when you’re a vet and you work at the VA, they feel they can trust you more. And if you experienced some of the same things, they feel more open to talk to you about things. So I like that part. I’ve worked in the in-patient psych unit, in suicide prevention. I love all aspects of mental health nursing. Anything about helping people. I just really took the job seriously. If someone called and was suicidal, I just did whatever I could to get them resources to get some help.

I have one son, he lives in Belgium. I had him while I was in the military, to a Italian citizen. We eventually divorced. My son was parentally abducted from me when he was 7, and I haven’t seen him since. He’s 25 now. I only talked to him on phone and Facebook and stuff since he was, like, 13. So that was a lot of depression right there that I eventually overcame, but it’s still there. Both of my parents are gone, no brothers and sisters, just me in the world. So I go to work and really put my, you know, it’s like my family.

I have a dog. My dog is like the thing I love so much. He’s a Boston terrier, his name is Adler. He has so much energy. He gets up on my bed, kisses me, keeps me going. I have a roommate who’s also a nurse at the VA. We keep each other going. She’s a psych nurse also. That’s basically who I am.

There must be something about dogs. So many people I speak with have them.

Yes, I when went to a conference in San Francisco, we had a woman speak about how effective they are as therapy. Really, I always tell vets, if you’re able to take care of yourselves, a dog is so beneficial.

I’m thinking over what you said in your e-mail. One part that really stood out was when you said that you had worked in suicide prevention and knew exactly what to do.

Obviously, I know all the coping skills. We have a group at our VA. If you’re at high risk for suicide, you’ve had a high-risk attempt, we have a group on Tuesdays at 1:30 and Thursdays at 6 for people who survived, because they have no one else to talk to. They just give each other encouragement.  Part of my job was to call people, make sure they were OK. I called them every week: “Hi, this is Natalie, how are you doing today? What’s going on? Any suicidal thoughts? Have you eaten today? Have you taken your meds? Do you need to talk?” Plus, we sent out cards and letters. I tell people they can stop by the hospital any time it’s convenient, just come into my office and I’ll make time to talk. So I knew, I know what people need when it’s over and they’re just left there. And I know what they feel when they’re getting ready, when they’re on the edge. So I know both sides of the coin.

So, after it was over and they told me I could go home, nobody made any appointments for me. I was at a regular hospital. I had been in a coma eight days and was not expected to live. I had a living will, but they didn’t honor it. Anyway, nobody helped me. My psychiatrist didn’t contact me, and when I tried to make an appointment, I was in shock, and he couldn’t give me an appointment until the middle of March. So I was like, “What am I supposed to do now? I don’t have my medicine.” It was like, “This is terrible.” I kept trying to call and page him.

I have really bad insomnia. While I was in a coma, I lost a lot of my short-term memory. I have no ability to sleep now. I will stay awake 24 hours a day. I’m literally awake if I don’t have something to help me. I was awake for days. I finally talked to the chief of mental health at the VA and she said, “Just let us handle your care.” She got me to a new psychiatrist who didn’t know me as a VA employee. So she was very nice to me, and on a day she wasn’t even working, she met me and talked to me, worked out a treatment plan. She understood I couldn’t sleep and made it available for me to get meds to sleep. Because if I don’t sleep, it brings on migraines, which was the number one reason for my attempt. So that was really important. That was good.

Also, normally, our psychiatrists at the VA are so busy, they only see you 15 minutes to do a med check. Also psychotherapy. So she’s really going over and above. Tomorrow, I have an hour’s appointment. I can talk about all that’s going on, what’s changed, what’s gotten better. She’s really more like a therapist and a psychiatrist all in one. Normally you just go into the psychiatrist and it’s, “How’s your medicine working? OK, see you in three months.” My chief of mental health helped me so much. She helped facilitate because I’m still on leave. They’re really just like a family. And I know a lot of people have one bad experience and think all of the VA sucks, so this is just to let them know it doesn’t.

How recent was this for you?

Jan. 11

You’re OK talking about it?

Yeah. It’s all right.

With all of your experience in suicide prevention, how could you still do it?

My number one thing was pain. And pain, as I found in working in that suicide prevention position, pain is a big, big factor for people. You don’t understand until it’s your own personal thing. I had migraines for over 20-something years. And for the last six months before my attempt, the migraines were worse and worse. I missed so much work. I went to doctor after doctor. They tried me on different medications, which made me sick to my stomach, made me uncomfortable, fatigued. They never, ever took the pain away. I went to one, supposedly this person in the civilian world who was a headache specialist. I’m 50 years old, and I can’t go on vacation, can’t go out at night, can’t make plans because I don’t know if I’ll have a headache. It had been that way for a long time. So I see this specialist, or his nurse practicioner. She doesn’t have much of anything new to tell me. She tells me that in time, it will get under control. Well, my time was up. I was tired of having a headache, and I’m sure people were tired of hearing me say I had a headache. The pain was just so excruciating.

I had an outside therapist and kept telling her this pain was really starting to get to me. And I knew what the coping skills are. But to me, in my mind, it was best not to have the pain at all. I just didn’t want the pain anymore. I’ve heard all the arguments about that. You know, “Suicide is a permanent solution to a temporary problem.” Well, this temporary problem was going on for over 20 years. It was a problem every single day. It had become who I was, and if you knew me, that’s what you associated me with, having a headache. And it wasn’t just me. My mother had had these, and I just saw how she was. And I didn’t want to be some debilitated person. I just wanted to go out my way. That’s it. I really had no intention of ever being alive again. I thought I had planned it pretty good. But someone had another plan for me.

But yeah, I had been going to more frequent counseling. I journal, I crochet, I do tons of different stuff. I have my dog, I read, I do a bunch of stuff on the Internet. I do a lot of coping skills, you know. And I know the coping skills for pain and have told them to people. “Why not have a nice hot shower?” I’m in so much pain that only if I got a gun and shot my head, and you’re telling me to take a hot shower? I don’t think so. For a time I was on narcotic pain medicine, but that just took it away for that moment and then it was back again, a blinding insane pain.

How is it now? How are you?

On Friday, I went to my VA primary care doctor to get medication that you can take every day to cut down on the frequency and intensity of headaches, but nobody wanted to let me take it because suicidal thoughts are one side effect. Well, that’s one side effect of almost every medication. I was getting frustrated, crying, couldn’t take it anymore. So I’ve been taking it since Friday, not really time to build up, still having some headaches. But if I take the medicine immediately. And I know what all my migraine triggers are. Last night, the guy next door, teenagers, started playing their garage band outside, so that one I had no control over. I just had to deal with it. I’m hoping that will cut down on things for me. And I’ve got about six appointments. Before, all they wanted to do was MRI and CT. Now they’re doing vascular studies for circulation to my brain, some really in-depth tests to figure out what’s going on. This much was not done until it got serious.

How much longer are you on leave?

I don’t know, that’s up to the psychiatrist.

What have been the reactions?

Most people that I helped knew I was a veteran. Of course, I didn’t cross the therapeutic boundary and share my personal life. I think some knew I’d had headaches. I had the meds on my desk, had sunglasses on, things like that. The majority of them don’t know, but the ones I’ve seen have been OK with it. They treated me like another veteran. I think the employees have been a little more uncomfortable, not the ones I work with directly, but some others have been more uncomfortable with me than the veterans themselves.

Why?

I think because a lot of the veterans I worked with in suicide prevention, I also had worked with them in the residential substance abuse unit, so I guess they could empathize.

Like you empathized with them in the first place.

Exactly. You don’t have to really know what someone’s reason was. You just have to know it was something they couldn’t deal with anymore. You don’t have to know that much about it to know it was something extremely disturbing to them to do that. It really has to be your very last resort. And I’m not saying it was easy to do. It was something I had resigned myself to. I just got up and, I don’t really remember much about that day even. I just had read a whole lot and wanted to make sure that I didn’t throw up, drank milk between handfuls of pills. I remember lying down on the bed, but that’s not where they found me.

They took you to a non-VA hospital. Once you woke up, how were you treated?

While I was in ICU, they were very nice. I had a one-to-one sitter. At first, I didn’t realize that was going on. That’s the right protocol. The nurses were nice. I couldn’t eat anything or drink anything after they removed the tube from my throat. They gave me some ice chips. I was so thirsty. They got a little impatient with me then. But you know, nurses have a lot to do. I understand it.

How did you wake up?

I don’t know. I have absolutely no idea. I just remember, I guess it was one morning, and I opened my eyes, and when I opened them I thought, “Oh shit, this is not good.” I saw my roommate and my boyfriend and I was just like, “Oh my God.” The chief of mental health came and was saying, “I’ll take care of everything for you, Natalie. Don’t worry about missing work, just call us and let us know what’s going on.” Of course, lots of things were going through my head. I was angry, really angry.

How do you get over that?

Well, I think you just have to …  I think I’m still angry. I don’t think you can get over it that fast. I just try to push it to the back of my mind. I think the only time I think of it is when I get a headache: “I never would have had to deal with this if I had died.”

When had your migraines started?

They started in the military. The day I got out of boot camp, me and two other girls in the same command, we rented a car. We were in Florida and were going to a girl’s home in Alabama for an Auburn football game. We had three days’ leave. She was driving really fast in the country. I was sitting in the front seat: “Please slow down, you’re scaring me.” “Oh, I know the road like back of my hand.”

I just remember the car just rolling, and then I woke up and went through the windshield and woke up in a bush. I don’t know. I lost my shoes. All these trucks had pulled over, and all these people were praying over me. And the girl in the back broke her neck. So, the start of really bad headaches.

How will this recent experience change what you do in your work? Will it?

Well, yeah. I think the three of us, when we worked together in the office, we went to so many educational seminars. I read so much, just trying to get as much information about suicide as we possibly could. I think that we heard so many people say that, you know, suicide is preventable. And I think you can help some people to not do it. But I think in my mind, maybe I just thought that if you reached anybody in time, you can stop them. Now I know that you may be able to reach 99 percent, but pain is the one driving force that people can’t live with. And a lot of suicides I saw, or attempted suicides, were over relationship problems, “My wife left me, my girlfriend left me.” Even the completions were about relationship things. The people who ended up, most of the ones completing, though, were pain things. And at the end of my time in that job, the KASPER reports were coming out, and people were cracking down on not giving out pain medication, and more people were calling the hotline saying they would kill themselves because their doctor stopped the pain medication. People really have legitimate pain, and they all get lumped into the same category of drug-seeking, and you leave out people truly with pain issues, and that’s where these things can happen.

Now you work in a different section of the VA.

I have people who say they had a suicide attempt and were addicted to, say, crack, and so they left the inpatient unit of psych and came to my unit. They’re still dealing with what they did. So I think that’s more insight when talking to people, and understanding.

You mentioned not crossing the boundary of therapy and telling too much about yourself. But it seems it would be helpful if a person knew that the therapist really understood their situation. How do you balance that?

Some things you can do. But you have to be really selective about with whom, and what information, you share. If I was talking one-to-one with somebody who, say, lost a child or had a child taken away to foster care or such, and they’re angry and upset and having suicidal thoughts, “No one understands about not having my child,” I might share something about that. Because a lot of times when you’re in a really dark spot, you feel no one understands where you’re coming from. So, knowing that the person you’re talking to has experienced something in that area, that can develop good rapport. You don’t have to tell your whole life story, because you’re not there to be their friends. Because then they’re confused. You’re there to support, but you want them to know you’re a person and not immune. A lot of times people think, “You’re hospital employees, you have no problems,” but that’s not the case at all. You just have to draw that line.

Can you imagine sharing your recent experience?

I can. Yeah, I can.

How?

It would depend on the person. Maybe if they were still in that angry state. It’s hard for people to actually get clean. So, doing the work of getting clean and just having a suicide attempt, that’s two things to work with. And if you’re angry you’re still alive and you’re trying to get clean, and you feel nobody else understands because “I don’t even want to be alive, but I’m trying go get off crack” or whatever, at times I think a powerful something like that can be helpful to somebody. I don’t think it would be something I would share every day.

I’m always surprised to hear about stigma among colleagues in the mental health profession. That they wouldn’t mention their past. These are just the kinds of issues you’ve trained for.

Sometimes at work, people just freak out, even though they work in that area. They don’t expect to see that from you if you’re working there. They’re at a loss. To me, I think I would be able to make that transition to, “This is someone who needs help,” but I guess some people can’t. It’s too scary for some people. It’s still suicide. And there are still people who don’t want to talk about it. We constantly did education on how to handle a suicidal phone caller. And there were people who were like, “I can’t talk to someone who is suicidal.” Licensed social workers of 20 years! People get nervous and anxious and feel like they might say the wrong thing and don’t know what to say. We do the training to explain it to them, but I think it just obviously takes a special person to work in that area.

And it’s stressful, I’m not gonna lie. There’s so much PTSD, and there’s so much self-medication, and there’s so much suicidal thoughts that even people in the retail store of the VA or other areas like MRI, CT, X-ray, they still have to have those communication skills. Therapeutic communication skills are a must at the VA. You can’t be the VA of the 1960s anymore, where people were yelling at you and ignoring you and pretending your problems were not there. This is where everyone’s trained on how to talk to you if you’re freaking out, having a flashback. If it’s happening in the lobby and a greeter is there, in the pharmacy, they should know to handle it.

Do they?

Yes, that’s part of the suicide prevention policy. I’ve been training all over the hospital. And when something happens, nine out of 10, it’s because somebody didn’t know how to verbally de-escalate the person who was upset. You know, people don’t have a lot of patience. PTSD, people with depression, they don’t want to get out of the house, much less go to the pharmacy and wait two hours. So they raise their voice. So the response is not to raise your voice even higher or to treat them like a child: “Listen here!” That’s not the correct response. The correct response is to lower your voice and ask, “How can I help you right now? Can you explain the situation to me, please, so I can try and help you better?”

I don’t think I’ve asked, where are you?

I’m in Louisville, Kentucky.

How would you change the system, based on your experience?

I still think there’s a lot of stigma as far as active-duty people. You can tell. When I do trainings in different places, it’s just not something … It’s still, “Suck it up and go on.” A lot of times, it’s mostly in the Army and Marine Corps. I think the Air Force and Navy are pushing to not hold it against you when you have suicidal thoughts and get help.

The speakers who would get up and talk, you could tell there was still somewhat of a stigma. And the survivors of the men _ I say boys _ who committed suicide were so angry because had written letters to commanding officers and nothing got done.
And you know, for me, the pain was my number one thing, but for them, it was what they’ve seen that was the number one thing. As much as my pain was an everyday source of stress to me, these young men, what they’ve seen is so completely horrific that it invades their thoughts every single day, and it gets to the point where they can’t deal with it.

We really have to be more aware of what’s going on around us. I would go do a training and ask, “OK, what are the signs that someone might be depressed?” And then, “When they get worse, what are some signs?” Some people might know, but if they’re in the military, the thoughts get kind of pushed aside in the immediate day-to-day things they have to do.

But now what they’re here, the spouses have to be more aware. I have a lady who does my hair, and her husband just got back. I told her if he needs anything to come see me. I’ve asked her, “How are things going?” “Well, he’s having problems adjusting.” “Is he angry?” “Yes.” “Is he violent?” “Not with me and the kids.” And last time, she said he had been drinking more than he usually did.

I think people don’t want to believe it’s something that could happen. And the soldiers don’t want to tell their wives these things. Or they’re self-medicating. They’ve got kids to take care of. The wives just really have to know. The families have to know. The friends have to know. And if you’re not mental health professionals and not involved with their care, you think, “Oh, he’s just going through a hard time, he’ll be all right.” That’s a 50-50 chance you’re taking.

I just talked to my stepmother for the first time last night since I got out of the hospital. She said she had asked my roommate, “Do you think she did that on purpose?” My roommate said, “Of course.” My stepmother told her she had had no idea I was having those kinds of thoughts, but she had heard me every day say what kind of pain I was in.

I’m not arguing here, but saying you’re in pain is not the same as saying, “I’m in so much pain, I’m going to end it.”

You know, to me, if somebody’s talking to me on the phone every day a lot, and they were talking to me about how much pain they were in, crying, how they had no life because they had nothing but pain, I would immediately be talking to their family. I would. Anything that is invading somebody’s thoughts every day to the point where it’s consuming their life definitely is something to be concerned about, and if they’re not talking about it, but maybe something has changed, they’re not talking about it at all, they’re isolating, you know, I would be bringing that to somebody’s attention. It’s not always going to be the textbook signs and symptoms.

When I go out to, you know, I’d go to the mall _ well, not the mall, because I hate the mall _ but I could tell, I could see people’s depression. If I saw someone was crying, sometimes I’d go up to someone I didn’t know and talk to them. I’d be at Costco or whatever and see someone having a hard time and just talk to them.

It’s a lot of work, and lot of times it’s easier for people to think, “She’ll be all right.” And once you bring up that thing and you ask somebody, “Are you having suicidal thoughts? Are you thinking about killing yourself?” you’re kind of in the driver’s seat. To talk to them. You know, that’s why we have the QPR training. It takes time to have those conversations. People, a lot of times, are just involved in their own thing.

You see so many people at these conventions, 900 or 1,000 people at these conventions, all trying to get information on how to help people. Think about that. Only 1,000, then all the people who are suffering, maybe be having suicidal thoughts. And these people are trying to increase awareness.

You know, if you Google “survivors of suicide,” that’s for the people who are like the wives, the husbands, the parents. They’re not for the people who have survived their own attempts.

You said you have a support group at the VA. I’m impressed.

Yeah, but I don’t go to that one. It would be crossing the boundary a bit. I want to go where I can feel free, open up about myself a bit without making people feel uncomfortable. We have people who have come to our support group since day one, almost three years. They all relate to each other, provide support. There’s not something like that in the community. There’s just not. And it’s a shame. And there’s a bit of an insurance thing about that. “You can’t get a bunch of suicidal people in the same room talking about suicide.” It’s like the, “Don’t mention suicide because they’ll kill themselves.” Or like, “Don’t talk about contraception because they’ll go have sex.” Myths.

I’m curious, does every VA hospital have a support group?

No it’s a pilot program that started at ours. Now Dr. Jobes is using his model, helping them with a grant to show that it helps. I really can’t speak to how that’s going, but I know our groups had something to do with that. And people didn’t initially want to go: “I’m not going to sit around with a bunch of people talking about killing ourselves!” But we urged people to go to four groups, and for the most part, people who came to the four groups were glad they did it. Some stayed for months. Some never left. It’s what they needed. And everyone’s free to come back.

Otherwise, you’re just left to deal with it on your own. Really, there’s nothing. You can journal. I journal a lot.