Talking with Jim Atkisson

Many people can hide the evidence of their suicide attempt. Jim Atkisson can’t. What happened when he was 16 years old has trailed him ever since, disqualifying him for the Army and for law enforcement and other jobs.

He believes that anyone who attempts suicide in the violent way he did has had this thought in the split second afterward, whether or not they survive: “Oh god, what have I done?” And he doesn’t want that happening to anyone else.

But he knows the challenges in even starting the conversation. “I think people are unwilling to accept the fact that people they know are contemplating suicide right now,” he says. “It’s OK to have the conversation, as long as it’s nobody you know. If it’s the guy down the street, it’s OK to talk about him. But if it’s a son, a husband, it’s unacceptable. Because that would mean something’s wrong.”

Here, Jim talks about his father’s anger at him over his attempt, the need for suicide prevention groups to be far louder and the unexpected power of a cup of coffee.

Who are you? Please introduce yourself.

I’m 43. I am married 13 years, with three kids. I’m a writer, and like many writers, I’ve been job to job. Everything from health care to a bouncer in nightclubs. I just started telling my story by accident. My wife said, “You need to write about the night you pulled the trigger.” I gave up talking about it because of the social backlash. When you tell people that you intentionally shot yourself, the looks you get. I was a kid. There was no one to help me cope with that. They never rejoiced that I was alive. They were angry that I shot myself.

What happened?

My parents divorced when I was 4. I didn’t see my mom after that. My dad remarried. I never assimilated into the family. I was on my own. My father was violent. I grew up fearful. I was 8, 9, 10 when I began to experience depression, anxiety. I noticed that whenever there were problems, if I imagined myself flying away, I’d feel better. If my dad was screaming, throwing things at me, if I was flying, he was not hurting me anymore.

Then in June 1985, I had a really bad semester. School was always my sanctuary. I was looking at a bad summer. I went from thoughts about flying and suicide to saying, “Yes, I’m going to shoot and kill myself.” It took seven months to work my life into that position where I had the nerve to do it. I demonstrated the classic symptoms, gave things away, talked of a future without me. They never picked up on it. I was dipping my toe in suicide waters, trying to get a feel for it. I think it happens to a lot of people. I think it’s crying out for help. They’re trying to desensitize themselves to the fear of death.

And when I pulled the trigger on Jan. 24, 1986, I had made a mistake. I remember laying in the field dying, thinking, “I made a mistake.” When you shoot yourself, it’s impossible to undo. A year after I shot myself, my vice principal and a fellow classmate shot and killed themselves. I thought, “Surely they had had the same thoughts I did: ‘Oh god, what have I done?'”

How were you rescued?

I lived in a rural community where the nearest ambulance was 18 miles north and the nearest hospital was 18 miles south. Pastures and hills. The only people home were my 9-year-old brother and grandfather. When I left home, I was wearing my best shirt and tie and carrying my rifle, and I grabbed the Bible. I felt I needed it for inspiration. I drove a quarter mile into the woods. I sat for an hour. I couldn’t do it. I unloaded the rifle.

Then I remembered I had been threatened the night before, and I said, “I can’t do it anymore.” I sat down by a creek and put the gun an inch off my sternum. I took the safety off and pulled the trigger. I had tried to prepare myself. There was so much blood, I wasn’t prepared. Then I thought in my head, I simply said, “Name one reason to hope for.” At this point I was still alive. “It doesn’t have to end like this. I grew up in a crappy home. I want to provide a loving home to my kids. I want to be a dad.”

So I engaged in the battle of getting myself out of the woods. I called for help. I cried and called. I don’t know how long. When I’d wake up, I’d start calling again. My brother felt a tugging sensation, an urge to go in the woods and stack firewood. He saw me bleeding to death. He got my grandfather, called an ambulance. Another few minutes, and my life today would not be a reality.

People are gonna die today and tomorrow, and their last thoughts are gonna be, “I shouldn’t have done this.” And they’re not gonna get that second chance.

What were the reactions to what you did?

It happened almost immediately. I remember lying in the field. I woke up and was faced with a deputy sheriff looking at me. “Who did this to you?” “I did this to me, sir.” He scowled at me, shook his head and walked away. I didn’t want to die alone. I thought he left me to bleed to death. I wished he could kneel next to me, be with me.

A few days after the shooting, they closed the curtains and wheeled up next to me to talk about the shooting. One thing jumped out at me. They said, “It would have been better if your legs had been cut off, if you had been burned in a fire than to have those scars from suicide.”

I remember thinking, “I’m so glad to be alive.” But then there was this condemning: “You. Shot. Yourself. You have to create a lie about how you got shot. You can’t say you did it on purpose. Tell them you were hunting and fell on your rifle.” Later, I was at a conference for teens, and there was an open mike for people to share stories about how god helped them. I got up and told my story. And I remember the kids, they wrote me for months, telling me they had been suicidal and got help. I repeated this a few times at different camps. I was helping people. But then they told me, “Don’t ever share this in public again.”

I tried to get into the Army. I’m standing in front of the doctor, and they see the bullet hole. “Did you put that there?” They said, “You’re unfit.” I was like, “I’m sorry. I was a kid! 16! It’s not like I was 35 and did this.” It was so bad that I could never be forgiven for what I’d done.

So I fell into a depression in my 20s, and I became homeless when I was 28. I can never escape my suicide. I said I would never talk about it again. Then my wife said, “You have to tell.” I can cope with it. I can deal with the stigma. There’s nothing they can say I haven’t heard 20 times.

You wife, why did she urge you to speak out?

I got to the point where I thought that if I have a relationship with someone, I brought it up. I told her, and she wasn’t bothered by it. Occasionally I would share it at Sunday schools, and she saw people’s responses. When I started writing, it popped in my head. “You can tell this story. You were inside of it. You know how it entices people.” I get calls from counselors, ‘Will you talk with my client who’s suicidal?” When you deal with death, you can’t walk away from it. If not for her, I never would have talked about it again.

How did you start putting yourself out there?

So far, it’s been limited. I’ve sold 100 copies of my book. Amazon offers resources now for anyone to publish to different platforms. The self-publish movement has taken off. I had thought about traditional publishers, but I’ve sent 200 e-mails out, with maybe a few responses. I think my suicide prevention platform is to write, like, 100 books in my lifetime and link every book back to my suicide prevention book. If I want to write a horror book, a science-fiction book, and if someone reads about the author, they say, “Oh my goodness.” And I’ve wanted to be a public speaker, but it’s difficult to break into the market.

But you’ve tried?

Yes. I’ve driven places, knocked on the door, even handed out fliers, and then three people come out. If you know suicide, for every death there’s 25 people trying. How many people in my area are contemplating this? It’s rampant, and it can be avoided. It’s not like cancer, with no cure.

Where are you again?

In Maryland.

Did you say gun safety is a motivation?

The guns I had access to, they were actually safe. I had grown up around firearms. Had they not been around, I know I would have … There was a mountain with these rocks, and I had thought about climbing up and throwing myself off. Guns are so prevalent because they’re so lethal. If the Golden Gate Bridge was in every community, that probably would be the top route to go. People like to make a statement. The Golden Gate Bridge is a statement, this romantic air about it, I suppose. But guns, it’s done. I never wanted to get caught up in that platform. So many of my friends own guns, I didn’t want to lose their support.

There’s other ways to cope. More and more people are stepping out, not afraid of stigma. “If we can, maybe you can get help.”

How has your family taken this?

Not well. It became brushed under the rug. I’ve had no contact with them til this day. I was an embarrassment. A year after the shooting, I was dragged into the woods and made to stand in front of the tree. “Boy, you did this to yourself. You have to own it.” I had to touch the tree. My family told me how pissed they were that I did this to them. It was never why I did this. It was always the aftermath. The crime of shooting myself was greater than the abuse I was enduring at home.

Why did they make you touch the tree?

To get over it. To confront my fear. I could not go into the woods. I could see them from my bedroom window. My family is active in the woods. I had an issue with them, PTSD. My father was always needing help in the woods. For a year, he gave me grace. One day I had a biology report to collect bugs. I went into different woods. As I was coming out, he saw and said, ‘It’s time for you to go down there.” He dragged me down, made me touch it. I thought the ground was gonna swallow me alive.

I was under a psychiatrist’s care for eight to 10 months. I enjoyed it. It made me feel better. I could talk openly. But it was such a shame to have to see a shrink, and I was told, “When you’re 18, you’ll have to hide this.” Whenever you fill out a job application, there’s the question, Have you ever had psychiatric issues? Have you ever been convicted of a crime? No. Have you been hospitalized for a suicide attempt? Yes, I have. It’s humiliating. I’m still a criminal. I try to tell recruiters. I wanted to be a firefighter. “Yes, sir, I attempted suicide.” When I told the story that I shot myself, it was like I was done.

They would have been OK if you had taken pills instead?

I think so. Based on the responses, when I talk to others who have said they’ve been suicidal. They said, “I’ve been suicidal.” I said, “So did I.” “What did you do?” “I shot myself.” And then they say, “I’ve been suicidal, but I’ve never been able to shoot myself.” I’ve had people say, “You are the real deal.” That’s why it’s important to try to fight and save lives.

The people I talked to were further up the road than me. Thinking, taking some pills. I said, “But both you and I attempted suicide.” Then I thought, “Maybe we’re not equally committed.” They were being dragged down the road to something they would regret. I just watched the video on YouTube of the man who had shot himself in the face and survived. The people who jump off the bridge. I think that frightens a lot of people. Just an observation. I’ve heard it more than one time. Since I released my book, talked to people who said, “I’ve thought about killing myself, but I never thought about shooting myself.” There’s a disconnect there.

And again, it starts with a thought. If you can interrupt the process early, like a progressive illness. If you can reach them sooner, before they have had several attempts of suicide. Because the odds of trying again are so high.

Has that ever been a thought for you again?

Good question. Twelve years after the shooting, I had gotten a divorce. I had nowhere to go, living in my car, penniless, sleeping in a parking lot. All my possessions in a bag. In the middle of night I thought, “What am I doing? How did I crawl out of the woods and have my life end up like this?” Having shot myself, I wasn’t afraid to do it again. I had broke something in that. But I vowed to myself that day, “Never do that again.” There’s always things to live for. And I enjoy coffee. And I looked at that and thought, “If I take my life, I won’t have another cup of coffee. I will deny myself the chance for another cup of coffee.”

I started inching forward. The next day, I rewarded myself with a cup of coffee. Within two years, I was married, I had a house. That’s what I write about in my book. I acknowledge a higher power. Like if I had been in the woods, if I had laid there, I would have died. But I thought I wanted to be a father.

Some people are addicted to drugs, alcohol. For me, it was thoughts of taking my life. But I know it’s not the way to handle life. I always find a way. Now I have children. I could never do that to them. I’d be denying myself a chance for a better tomorrow. The crap we think is worth taking the life for, it always burns away. So I’ve moved forward.

The stigma, has it gotten better over the years?

I’ve noticed … I can’t imagine trying to get a job right now. That’s why I’m a writer. The overall culture, I think, with younger folks, 35 and younger, I think, is more open. Probably the boomer generation is unwilling to talk about it. There’s a strong state of denial in our churches and schools. I think people are unwilling to accept the fact that people they know are contemplating suicide right now. Either they won’t see it or they’re fearful. It’s OK to have the conversation, as long as it’s nobody you know. If it’s the guy down the street, it’s OK to talk about him. But if it’s a son, a husband, it’s unacceptable. Because that would mean something’s wrong.

My book came out at Junior Seau‘s death. My friends put an online a link to WebMD on how to recognize symptoms of suicidal thoughts. They asked friends to share the links. No one did. I wrote this post, “There will be people in your life, in 12 months, someone will die of suicide.” Within 90 days, three people I knew had already lost somebody in their circle. And I asked, begged, “Please, just share this. Demonstrate that you’re willing to be that person they can talk to.” I’ve posted photos of 10-year-olds who have taken their life. Everybody assumes it’s a guy in his 40s, jobless in a trailer, who takes his life. What about a 10-year-old?

Where I live, there’s not one billboard recognizing what to do if someone feels suicidal. There’s nothing, no public awareness to say, “Hey, life has really taken a dump on me. I’m reduced to living hour by hour. I’m ashamed of saying this, but life is not worth living anymore.” How to reach out to someone like that? The megachurch pastor whose son died by suicide. It’s out there. But it’s a lot better than in 1987.

You mean, people willing to talk about it?

Right. You could not talk about it back then. I remember thinking, “The police are going to arrest me,” while I was in the hospital. People were whispering about me. Again, I was so glad to be alive. The air was so sweet to be able to breathe after fighting that violent death. To be able to enjoy life, to walk out of the hospital. But then I was met with this monster! I didn’t know what I was dealing with. It was that stigma.

On job applications, do they really ask about a suicide attempt?

On certain jobs, it will. If you want a job with government. I had tried law enforcement. I would imagine for a government security clearance. It’s on there, on some applications. “Have you ever been hospitalized for depression or issues related to suicide?” If I had taken some pills, I could lie about it and say, “No, I’ve never had issues of suicide.” But when they take off my shirt for the physical, there’s the bullet hole and all the scars. “Well, how did you come by those?” My lie I came up with was so weak, people with firearms experience would say, “That doesn’t make sense.” The last time I went through this was 2001. After the attacks. I tried to get a job with police. I filled out the application and never heard back.

The suicide prevention messaging, is it working?

If I’m an average guy that has been laid off, unemployed two years, my home in foreclosure, a college education, never had problems with the law and suddenly have thoughts of ending my life every day, if I struggle to get out of bed, my friends are people I play golf with, go to church with, as far as I know, they never talk about suicide, they’d think I’m crazy … I have no idea there’s groups out there like that Out of the Darkness. I did not know these groups existed until I published my book a year ago. I started reading about these national groups. Where have they been? What they’re doing is a godsend, no criticisms, only I wish they were louder. I think in time they will reach that place, and they’ve come a long way. But for a guy who’s never been initiated into the world of suicide, they don’t know they exist.

A year ago, with PTSD, I had a breakdown and went to the ER. I had no insurance, and they told me to go to the local county mental health department. They laughed at me and said it would be a year before I could see anybody. I broke down and sobbed in the lobby. Then they stopped laughing. I dealt with it on my own at home. I found stuff online. It’s atrocious the way they treat mental illness. You know?

When that gun went off, I saw it for what it was. I wanted to live. I would not have fought that battle to get out of the woods. I wanted to live. I wanted to run into the arms of society, enjoy my life.

What would you like to see changed?

At a minimum, there should be billboards in every county. A billboard. So it’s not fearful to talk about. So everyone from a 10-year-old to an elderly person knows they’re not alone, that its not crazy to think about taking their life. With a 1-800 number. What happens is, you get in this crisis. I had been under the pull of suicide for so long, I just needed that one crisis to push me over. If I could just call a 1-800 number and call someone to calm them down, encourage them to get to a hospital to get care. Start with a billboard.

What more would you like to do?

I would like to visit high schools. Have psychiatrists send me a study. I’ll fill out every clipboard, questionnaire. Start asking us, interviewing us. Maybe you can study enough of our experiences so you can better educate yourselves to save lives. It might open your eyes. People ask me, “Why did Joe kill himself?” I say that’s the wrong question. How did he kill himself? We aren’t born to want to kill ourselves. That’s a hard wall to overcome. How did someone override their fear of death enough for them to take their life? How did they overcome their fear of dying?

Billboards. Invite survivors to speak, to talk to military people. I shouldn’t have to pull teeth to talk to anybody. I want to share my story. If I can save one life, that’s one less life I have to read about in the newspaper. It’s become a personal thing to me. It felt like a monster pulled me down, like a crocodile, that grabbed me, pulled me under. Oh my god, I could not have imagined. I understand what it feels like.

What have I not asked that you’d like to add?

The last time I talked about this was when Reagan was president. The last time I looked at the statistics, they’d gotten worse. The 10th top cause of death? At least half of those people probably deep down don’t want to do it. Think of all those human beings we could give their life back to them. It’s unacceptable. Why are vets dying every 65 minutes? Why do you have to have this blog to address this issue? Where’s the humanity? We can operate at a higher level of compassion and understanding to fellow man. And then we can save more lives.

Who else are you?

I would say I am, without a doubt, a dad, through and through. My kids don’t just go to bed and get tucked in. Seven days a week, we have a 30-minute process of getting tucked in. We wrestle. Stuffed animals come alive. I treasure it. My wife is my best friend. I love spending time with her. I love to write. I love my family.

How old are your kids?

9, 7 and 6.

Will you ever tell them what happened?

Good question. Last year I had a tent rented where I was selling the books, discussing the topic in my community. Some people came, talking. And my little girl said, “My daddy shot himself.” I remember the looks people gave me. I said these words to them, “I can’t hide it. When Daddy doesn’t have his shirt on, they see the scars. So she knows about it, as much a 9-year-old can know about death and dying.”

If it’s hereditary, I watch them. I’m very active. If there are any issues with mental health, I will fight tooth and nail to make sure they get the care they need. I know they’re very proud of what Daddy’s doing.

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