Talking with Linda Fuglestad

The road to talking with Linda Fuglestad started with the National Empowerment Center, which offers a directory of the dozen or so peer-run crisis services across the country. Linda was among the people at the crisis centers who responded to a hello.

Cheerful and articulate, with a Vermont home that’s often full of family, she found time in the final days of a busy academic semester to describe her own experience and explain just what a peer-run crisis center does. It sounds far more comfortable and engaging than a psychiatric ward, to be sure. The project where she works, Alyssum, is being watched as a pilot project in parts of the mental health world.

“We’re all human beings, we’ve all had pain and suffering and sharing,” Linda says. “And I think that’s just the human part that never should have been taken out of the counseling model in the first place. It seems to be on the way to being added back in, and I think it’s been a long time coming.”

Tell us about yourself.

My name is Linda Jean Fuglestad. I’m a divorced mom with four great daughters and, more recently, two older foster children and nine grandchildren. I love having a big family. I’m working on my master’s degree in clinical mental health counseling, and am looking forward to later being a therapist to work specializing in trauma, and I also hope to work with foster children and families. I currently work at a new pilot program funded by the Vermont Department of Mental Health, the peer-hosted alternative crisis respite, Alyssum, Inc., in Vermont. And I really love my job.

How did you come to be talking with me?

My executive director, Gloria van den Berg, forwarded an e-mail saying you were writing about people’s experiences surviving a suicide attempt. The way I came to have my suicidal experience happened when I was 15. Everything was about my mom. She was drinking, bipolar, had multiple personalities. She’d had a traumatic childhood of her own. When I was 15, I wanted sometimes for things to be about me. Sometimes I created my own problems, I guess, although I didn’t see it that way back then. I tried to figure out how to feel seen and heard with a mother with so much going on, and I wasn’t really being the real me. I ended up with a boyfriend who was very attentive, and I liked that. He was young, handsome and rebellious, and that was exciting at the time, but later I felt kind of stuck when I was wasn’t ready to be settled down yet. My mom, in particular, was pushing me to keep him. I didn’t agree, but the guilt was huge about leaving him, and everything just felt overwhelming. I decided I was just done. Nothing in my world was about me or what I wanted. I didn’t know who I was, where I was going. I felt I didn’t have anybody to talk to about that. I washed down a whole bottle of aspirin. Then I was thinking about it and started to panic. Maybe I did want to find out who I am, who I want to be. I called my boyfriend’s grandmother, who was a nurse. I panicked and said, “This is what I’ve done, what do I do? I’ve changed my mind.” She told me to vomit up the aspirin and drink lots of milk. I did. I never told my parents, my sisters, not even my best friend. I had quite a long time with ringing in my ears. It was quite a long time before I could or would take aspirin again. Just the smell of one would make me sick.

I struggled in a long relationship I wasn’t happy in after I had time to look at my life, and which later turned into an abusive marriage. But I decided I was not going to give up on me. I promised God I was never going to do it again. And I never did. I feel like I was selling out, like I was shorting myself and not giving myself enough credit for figuring out how to work through it. I’ve been through a lot of tough things in my life, and I’ve been in some phases of being really low, tired, depressed, places when life was tough, and I thought about it, but I decided I was a survivor. I was going to figure out a way to do it or ask somebody else for help. So through another marriage that didn’t work despite my trying really hard to work it out, after having loved him with all my heart, and then becoming a single mom again, it hasn’t been easy. There’s been a lot of struggles. A lot of times I thought maybe I wanted a way out, but I have never again wanted to take that way out. I had my girls to be a role model for, and they were counting on me, and I would want my dad to be proud of me. I’m not a quitter. I adopted the mantra, “It is what it is.” I keep on going. I slowly looked at the areas of my life I needed to change, and piece by piece I worked things out, sometimes alone and sometimes by talking to others, and slowly I put my life back together and felt balanced and stronger than ever. If I’d ever had a label after all my struggles, I would have finally outgrown it again.

How did your thinking turn to helping people like this?

I’d say when I was in my early 20s. I tried being a nurses’ aide before you needed all the licensing criteria. I liked working with elderly people. I saw my mom doing it. Despite her issues, she very loving, caring. She did her best to be a good mom. A good role model in her own way. She loved being a nurses’ aide. I tried it as well and really liked caring about other people and making their struggles as pleasant as possible, so they’re not alone. Later, I spent 14 years working in a factory close to the ballfields and school in my hometown so I could be there for my kids. I had decided that my number one goal in life was to be a good mom, and I worked really hard at it. At some point along the way, I decided that there is more to me than just being Linda and being a mom, and I found out more about who I am after an accident at work changed my life.

When I hurt my back in 2001 at my job, the result was me getting retrained for different work by taking some classes. I started out to get a certificate to be a medical office assistant. About two weeks into it, I realized that sitting still wasn’t going to work with constant back pain. A guidance counselor I went to helped me see that all the classes I wanted to take were under the heading of Human Services, which I didn’t realize until then was a real thing. So I went beyond the classes they were willing to pay for, got my associates in Human Services, got into a field working with people, and I really loved that. I did an internship at Prevent Child Abuse Vermont. My mom had been a foster child, we had had foster kids in the house growing up, and over the years, with the house always full of kids, I started thinking maybe this was something I could do, too. So I took the classes to be a foster parent, got my AS, then a BA in psychology and human growth and development. My first professional job was as a Healthy Babies, Kids & Families home visitor, and I loved it. Soon after I started that job, they asked me to add being a parent educator for the Even Start Family Literacy Group. I was driving all over Rutland County, helping moms and dads finish school and helping them to become healthy families and get everyone’s needs met.

I realized while doing this work that the parents often needed the nurturing even more than the kids. That’s when I decided to apply for the job of therapeutic case manager. I started working with families, helping them to work on challenges their children had. And again, I loved it. I decided to continue with my degree, working on my master’s so I could be a therapist. On the way to that, I found Alyssum, in Rochester, hosted by peers for mental wellness. I love that, too. We work as peers. I got offered the job of peer support host. Before I even started the job, the executive director called me back and said, “We want you to come back and interview for house manager.” I was like, “Whoa, I’ve never been a manager before!” We started talking about my experience and skills and then I realized, “Oh, yes, I do know how to do that. I have already done some of that!” So, I jumped in, and it was great!

I helped Alyssum get started, along with Gloria and Karen Bixler. They had had the idea a few years before that, and we got to start on the ground work and actually make it happen. It’s been really exciting to see the changes, to see different ways to view mental health _ the amazing things peers can do for each other. I think I’ve learned as much from the guests as they’ve learned from me. Very heartwarming, amazing. A lot of people heal because they get to be heard and understood and treated like human beings without all the mental health rules getting in the way. So here I am.

How did you tell your co-workers you were a peer?

That started in Gloria’s kitchen on day one of the interview. The ad in the paper said “peer-hosted,” and I had no idea what that meant. It said you had to have lived mental health experience. I thought, “Does that mean me? Or growing up with my mom?” When I got there, Gloria asked me to describe my own experience. I told her about my ongoing battle in the past with depression and about having PTSD from past trauma. I didn’t want to get mental health services because I was afraid they’d label me like they did my mom. By the time she died, she had been on around 23 medications. It was like they had used her as a guinea pig, trying this and trying that. There was a lot that they didn’t know about personality disorders, especially bipolar, back then. I found out she was misdiagnosed as schizophrenic, which she wasn’t. She was bipolar, and they missed the diagnosis of multiple personalities she had from childhood trauma. During college, I interviewed her therapist, who agreed with me. After I advocated for her to have the right medications and less of what she didn’t need that was making her miss out on experiencing her own life, her last 10 years of her life was the best time I’d ever had with my mom. Finally, she was engageable again. She was, like, back as a real-life person, laughing and fun and beautiful. I really felt like I had my mom back. I’m sorry my sisters weren’t here to get that time with her, too!

Looking back, I had wanted to avoid the whole mental health system. I had seen what they had done to my mother. So I had struggled silently by myself. Finally, desperate to feel more alive after years of being depressed and after researching it, I talked to my family physician and at his suggestion, wanting something he said was non-addictive, I  tried Wellbutrin, which I thought of at the time as a glorified magic non-aspirin, vitamin kinda thing. I didn’t know anything about medications, as I’d never taken any. It gave me more energy, perked me up, got me through a tough time. I said, “OK, I will not stay on medication for a long time, though. I need to see what part is me.” I was afraid of long-term effects of any medication, so I weaned myself off of it slowly and carefully. I was done with it, without telling anybody. I compared the before and after and remained feeling just fine. Best of all, I realized I had outgrown or worked through a lot of my feelings of being out of balance, all that being on a roller coaster kind of feeling, a lot of ups and downs I didn’t seem to have been previously able to control. I knew I wasn’t bipolar. I had seen my mom, studied it, had helped people living with it. It wasn’t me. So I worked on myself, worked through some stuff, and the closest conclusion that fit was that I experienced depression and issues from past trauma that had disrupted my life, and by purposely choosing to get past it, I forced myself to get out of that mold and get on with my life.

And there are a lot of things I said and did when I was younger that I wish I could stuff back into a box, but I learned from them, and I changed. And I understand other people’s pain a lot better. I guess if I looked back, I wouldn’t change it. I don’t like it, but I wouldn’t change it. I’m glad I experienced it, so I can understand what other people are struggling with. So, that’s how I got to be where I am now. I’m not exactly sure where I’m going next and when I’ll finish my degree. I have two semesters left for my MA, and I’m working on it. I just know I will help people who are struggling and know I will have to find ways to adapt holistic into the medical model.

How can you be a therapist without falling into the typical medical model?

What I do later as a therapist can have all the appropriate balance of the medical model, but I feel it can also still have the caring and compassion that people share as a peer. In the medical model, a lot of therapists don’t share anything about their own personal experience or let people understand they’ve been there. Colleges teach therapists to be professional, keep proper boundaries, to be cautious and more impersonal. And good boundaries are certainly important, but I think that the peer part of sharing, letting people know you understand because you’ve been there, is also very important. More textbooks now are talking about holistic care, wellness alternatives, homeopathic options, and colleges are taking note and are including this as pieces of our training now. We’re all human beings, we’ve all had pain and suffering and sharing. And I think that’s just the human part that never should have been taken out of the counseling model in the first place. It seems to be on the way to being added back in, and I think it’s been a long time coming.

What have been some of the surprises while working at Alyssum, the lessons?

I’m blessed to have a lot of good trainings. At least three months of trainings that I helped choose, along with Gloria and Karen. Later, other staff added things they wanted to have for trainings as well. We’ve had CPR, First Aid, Nonviolent Communication, training on Hearing Voices, Open Dialogue, Self-Harm trainings and such, and the biggie, Intentional Peer Support, and what it means to be a peer. We’ve had some great trainings on safely coming off psychotropic medications and got to hear Robert Whitaker talk about the dangerous side effects of psychotropic drugs. I am going to blog on his website soon, hopefully! We had talks about spirituality, honoring people right where they are.

But we were still nervous when the first guests arrived. We were not sure we’d be ready, so we were learning on our feet. But one of the trainings that is really important, and I think every place that works with peers or anybody in mental health system really should have, is self-harm. We had some really good trainings, discussions about people who use cutting as a coping skill. We say it that way, not just say people are cutters. It’s a behavior, not a label. I would say that’s one of the huge things I have learned, is to see people’s self-harm techniques as a way of coping, feeling something, where a lot of the world views it as, “Oh no! Call 911.” We had some people with those kinds of experiences. You have to assess if it’s a coping skill and if it’s an emergency or not. By being treated like a human being and by working on the feelings under the behaviors, we have had some successes already with people who no longer cut after a stay at Alyssum. We’ve had people come to us who are hearing voices. Some things were new and unfamiliar. We were kind of winging it as we went along.

The experiences, though, of our staff have really worked out to keep us balanced and moving forward. We have many talented co-workers who bring a lot of amazing life experiences and skills to us, which benefit our guests. I guess the beautiful thing is, we have a really great group. We have co-supervision every Thursday, with eight to about 14 of us. We talk through how things are going, ask questions, invite guests. We don’t call them clients. We include them, ask them for suggestions and ideas. We work with each other, role play it out until we think we’ve come up with the best response. We have worked with ideas with guests, with each other. I think every time we work with somebody new, it gets a little better. We keep it human and real at the same time. It’s great to have a place where you can go to work in jeans and be outside barefoot, and where you can dig your toes into the dirt in the greenhouse, talk with guests while digging vegetables, or cooking in the kitchen, or snuggling a therapy dog. Every day is different. There is a positive energy in the house, and as peers, we help guests, we help each other and always, we grow and learn.

Basically, how does it work?

As best I can explain it, we’re the first in Vermont, we are a pilot program, funded by the Vermont Department of Mental Health. We got started with a grant. To get into Alyssum, you need to either send us an e-mail on our website, where we have an intake packet with criteria, or you have to be referred by an agency or yourself. And you can fill out the info on why you need crisis respite and make sure you fit our eligibility criteria. You must be a resident of Vermont, age 18 or over, and not on the Vermont Sex Offender Registry. In order to be eligible, you must have a definite place for housing that you will return to after your stay with us. We don’t have the funding to help with housing, By the time you finish the paperwork, you still need some kind of referral from an agency, a licensed mental health professional that knows you well enough to testify you’re a good fit for the program. We don’t do detox for meds or drugs or alcohol.

People need to have self-awareness to “work on their stuff,” as we call it. You’ve got to have an idea of what it is you want to work on. We can help you get to that part if you are having a hard time expressing it. You tell us about your past experiences, past traumas, whatever you feel you want to share. And while we do ask for people to have a referral saying they’re not a danger to themselves or others, we are also clear that we do take people who are suicidal, in a mental health crisis. We just ask that people are not in imminent danger to themselves or others. So that the staff is safe. And the other guest. So that the person has enough cognitive awareness to at least process feelings with the staff. We don’t turn people away that use self-harm skills. We’ve had people who use burning and cutting, other kinds of self-injury. Like most places, of course, there’s no drugs, no alcohol and no weapons on the property. We do mostly organic food. We grow a lot of our veggies that we use throughout the year. We eat healthy, and we encourage others to do this also.

Guests have to be able to take care of their own activities of daily living, take their own medications. We don’t hold onto people’s meds. They’re in a lock box with their own keys. They’re in charge of that themselves. If people would like reminders for their meds, we will do that. They would do an intake, then once they get a referral from a mental health professional that says they’re a good fit, then they can get on the waiting list. It can be anywhere from a couple of people to 20 people. And a guest stays typically a couple of days to a couple of weeks. A two-week stay would be average. Anybody staying longer would have to be looked at on an individual basis, and the executive director determines if they stay longer on a case-by-case basis.

One criteria, people have to have stable housing to return to when they leave. We’ve learned through trial and error that a lot of people in the mental health system have issues with people being homeless. It breaks our hearts that when people get comfortable, they don’t feel well or safe going back to where they were. We would love to do more with that, we do work with Pathways to Housing, but we’re not a housing agency, that’s not what the program is for. At the beginning, we had a guest come, and later they didn’t have a place to go, and that put us in an difficult position. They do have to have secure housing to return to.

You get on the waiting list, keep calling, checking in. You can have a support stay or a crisis stay. After someone has been to Alyssum, we become part of their support. They can call and say, “Hey, I’m having a rough day, can I just talk a little bit?” Sort of like a warm line. We’re there 24-7, somebody’s awake night and day. We’ve become this really huge family, with 50 to 60 guests who check in, “Doing great” or “Tough day. Having voices.” But we have a really high success rate so far of people working through their own crisis, looking for ways to make their life better. And getting back to their lives.

How many people can be there at once?

Only two. We have two bedrooms. It’s a family-style house. Everybody is there of their own free will. They can come and go as they please. They’re there voluntarily. If they choose to leave in the middle of their stay, they may lose their spot. We have male and female staff. Everybody is peer-hosted. All are peers, including the executive director. And we have anywhere from 10 to 11 staff at a time altogether. We have either one or two people on a shift. If there’s somebody with really high needs, we adapt staff accordingly. We do all kinds of cool stuff, cooking together, gardening, hiking, laughter yoga, meditation, Reiki. We do energy healing. We do co-supervision, or staff meetings, every Thursday, often with a different training by others or put on by one of us. Role plays. Guests join in if they feel like. it. We have a library, music, exercise stuff, arts stuff. We have a deck out back where people can watch nature. We have a nice big yard, a fire pit, a gazebo, a garden, a greenhouse. Down below is the river. People collect rocks to bring back to paint sometimes, or to bring back a piece of Alyssum when they go home. A lot of people call being here “a little piece of heaven.” Many former guests come back and visit. A lot of guests volunteer to come back and work in the gardens. Some people come back and need a support stay, two or three days or a day, and will work little more intensely on what they’re working on. A few guests have later come back to be hired as staff.

We don’t encourage or discourage medications, but we do suggest people educate themselves about what they are taking and how they are feeling, and we are open to discussions if people want to talk to their primary care providers about coming off medications safely, but they can’t do that while at Alyssum. We do advocate that if what people are taking is working, they should stick with what works. We offer healthy alternatives for people to try for wellness, such as laughter yoga, meditations, exercise, energy work, active listening, breathing techniques and much more. A lot of what we do has made some life-changing difference already for many of our guests, and we’re excited about this!

What have been the toughest challenges?

I guess some would be when people were in that place where they didn’t want to live and just felt like they wanted to die, they wanted to just walk out in the dark or the cold and take stuff and just go. And sometimes we can’t have the answer for somebody, what it is they need to connect to, to want to stay. So we really have to dig deep sometimes to figure out what we might be able to share or say. Or sometimes just be patient and listen if someone is trying to vent their feelings. We have to search for, “What can we give this person so they can find something in themselves so they want to stay alive?”

Has anyone walked out and killed themself?

No. So far, so good. And we’re in touch with all former guests at intervals for followups, at typically one week, two weeks, three weeks, a month, three months, six-month intervals. So we get a pretty good sense of how people do after they leave, and this is part of the data we track for our funding. We’ve had guests who started walking down the road and said, “I’m leaving.” Really, all we can do is remind people they’re here voluntarily. We can’t make them stay, we can’t make them want to live, but we hope they do. I would say out of maybe three or four times that has happened since we opened that we’ve only had one person who just decided to walk away and leave. And everybody else thought about it, came back to talk about it, work through it, at least got calm enough to get someone to pick them up and go home because it was not the right time or the right fit. We’ve never had someone walk away and not come back. We’ve had people leave. And so far everyone who’s done that, those couple of people, they’ve changed their mind and decided to come back. And they did.

We’ve had a few people who were not a good fit for the program, not in a cognitive place to be able to work on what’s going on with them. I’d say 98 percent of guests have reported positive experiences there so far. We track this with a departure evaluations, and we use the LOCUS scoring to track stress level and mental health evaluation at arrival and again at departure.

Is that a self-evaluation tool?

Yes, the VDMH and many designated mental health agencies use it as a tool to evaluate levels of stress and overall mental health. For when a person arrives and leaves. It’s done together with a staff person. It’s what we use for tracking. So we can track our success rates, and this helps us qualify for more grants to stay open. The percentage of overall change is recorded and used for monthly tracking and year-end reports to the state of Vermont.

I would say probably one of the toughest things about being peer-hosted is, we’re all human beings. We have some people who push our buttons, who remind us of our own painful experiences, and we have to figure out how to cope with that and still take care of both ourselves and guests. We have a saying of “sitting with your discomfort.” And sometimes that’s our discomfort, and sometimes that’s asking guests to sit with their discomfort. And that’s turned into some learning experiences. We’ve had people sad, hurt feelings, upset, angry, disagreements at times, but the cool thing about being peers is that we just talk it out. And we’ve had a lot of people come to Alyssum who said it’s really good to talk to somebody who knows what they’re talking about. Who’s “been there.” Who understands. There’s no hierarchy of power, all just equals and peers. Everybody is allowed to say how they feel. If people have a disagreement, they talk about it. It’s been a very healing place for peers and guests.

Talking is part of self-care?

Yeah, if it’s peer-hosted, it tends to be a place where it’s OK for a staffer to say, “This is uncomfortable for me.” Or, “I don’t know the answer to that.” Or, “Maybe I’m not the right person for that.” We need to be able to have some limits. And it’s really hard sometimes when someone wants to share something intensely painful. It might bring up old stuff for us, or be unfamiliar: “Whoa, I don’t know how to handle that.” And we tell people that. We have _ I guess you’d call it a rule _ if we have a guest who triggers someone on the staff to where they feel they can’t put their best self forward, they can ask somebody to cover a few of their shifts. Or you can say, “While this guest is here, I want to be off shift.” We encourage talking it out first, we reach out to each other for self-care, and we role model this to guests. We remind each other after a tough day to go home with your family, read a book, take a bath, do something to relax and unstress. The things everybody should do.

Has there been any skepticism from the established mental health community?

We do have people come sometimes who say, “Where’s the schedule? What do you mean guests have to take their own meds?” And guests who ask that or things like, “You’re supposed to be telling me what I’m doing today.” We’re self-directed. We do have many people who may be very used to the medical model. That’s the time we’re just saying, “Well, we’re peer-hosted. If you really want a structured program or feel this is not a safe enough place or want more a secure environment, there’s the hospital for that, or maybe other options.” Most guests grow quickly to love having choices about creating their day any way they want. Guests have really loved field trips and going hiking, going swimming, or being able to leave for a few hours and go have lunch with a friend or family member who came to visit them or with a staff person. Guests also enjoy helping cook or go shopping for stuff at the local market, bookstore or bakery. Some people just sit and watch the birds on the deck and have time to think and relax, and it’s just what they need. Many designated agencies are asking for trainings from us, and many say their clients love the sound of what we do here. Skepticism has been brief and rare. Some mental health professionals say they wish they could come as a guest!

What about the mental health professionals?

I would say when some of our people do trainings on Hearing Voices, Open Dialogue, they have had groups of people with lots of questions. Overall, they love our trainings and have asked for more. We’re training them in a lot of cases. For the most part, everybody seems to love us. We have had psychiatrists and psychologists come to visit us, nurses. Almost everybody seems to agree that, overall, what we’re doing is working. Guests like it. They want to come back, to tell everybody about us. I’m sure there’s people who are skeptical, but we’re also getting more calls all the time asking about the program. There’s a lot of therapists, psychiatrists and counselors out there who say, “Sign me up.” They want to be on the waiting list. We have had counselors as guests. We haven’t had any complaints, except that people wish there were more Alyssums already and that they wish we had more beds for guests.

Why aren’t these centers all over the place?

Because we’re new and the pilot program. We’re going to prove that it works. They need to see the numbers of our success and that we are saving the state money on lowering hospitalizations and use of services for guests who have been to our program. I see it happening already, so it’s already in the works. There’s other places calling asking where there is an Alyssum near them, and they are sad to hear that there isn’t. In fact, I took a call a week ago, from a program in Massachusetts, calling us and saying, “How did you set up your program?” A lot of people are looking to us to model a program after. Some places are starting to want to do more of what we’re doing. Mental health agencies staff are emailing us and asking us for our Open Dialogue and Hearing Voices trainings for co-workers and supervisors. I’m hoping this is going to be the new way of mental wellness.

Who else are you?

I think I’m still discovering who I am. But despite past struggles, I am also a caring, compassionate person who is a writer, a gardener, a budding therapist, someone who is still full of hope that I will have something to share that will make other people’s lives even more beautiful somehow, more whole, more complete, more fun, more real. My children are mostly grown now, turned into beautiful young women, but we are all still very close, and they are my world. I also have nine grandbabies. Just seeing all this life growing is really exciting. I don’t really know exactly all of who I am, but I’m expanding my mind every day. I love learning from guests, from my co-workers, from my children and grandchildren, and I hope that I make a difference. I’m still figuring all that out. I feel like I’m younger than when I was 30.

Sometimes when something makes me laugh out loud, it reminds me of a former boyfriend of mine once who told me that “being this optimistic and hopeful is just not normal.”

Not for you, or not for the world?

For the world. And I said, “Well, if that’s what normal is, I’m fine not being normal.” So I’m still learning. I think we all stay young inside if we continue to laugh and grow. We just try to stay open-minded and realize that each person is new and different. It doesn’t matter if it’s a guest, one of the family, we all learn from each other. It’s what the whole world should be. That’s why I’m excited about Alyssum and glad to be a part of it. I think it will be the beginning of a lot of amazing things that will change in mental health programs.

People should talk about mental wellness like we do any other checkup. When we see our family, neighbors or friends struggling, instead of avoiding them or acting like we don’t see that something is going on with them, we should just be able to say, “What can I do to help?” Mental wellness, physical wellness, it should all be okay to talk about. If someone is suicidal or depressed, we should be able to ask if they are okay and what do they need. Sometimes people need counseling and medication, but sometimes they just need someone to care, to listen, to give them a moment to remember what is good about them, and maybe they need a hug or a good night’s sleep. Maybe they just need someone to ask them what they need. We should just all be peers. Someday, hopefully, that’ll be the new normal.

We have a motto: “It’s not what’s wrong with you, but rather, what has happened to you.” Most or all of our guests with mental health issues in crisis come to us with a trauma background.  It is often through healing the past trauma that we become whole again. If we can’t be totally whole again, we will work to be the best that we can be, and that is good enough. We are all doing the best that we can.

Talking with Charlotte Claire

Charlotte Claire wrote to me from Australia, where she’s working on a number of one-woman projects to help others who’ve been suicidal, including the intriguing idea for what she calls a “suicide midwife.” She explains below.

If you plan on going to the Burning Man festival this year, you might see her performing. Here, she talks about nakedness and suicide, her family’s occasional tough love and how standing in the daily line for medication woke her up to larger thinking.

“Waking up on the other side of attempting suicide is when you have the toughest conversations with yourself,” she says.

Tell us about yourself.

My name is Charlotte Claire. I go by the titles of mental health activist, author and life model, because they’re really the main channels where I can express myself creatively, as well as in a sophisticated manner, in what I believe so strongly about in mental health care and how mental health care can be improved, also how we can inspire each other to care for mental health. My work has evolved over the past 10 years, from having an adolescence that was particularly traumatic, and very much defined by learning how to optimize my mental health. So I’m now 31, and I find myself to be quite generally of good health and, in some ways, a bit of a master of my own demons. And I’m in a position where I can talk about these themes with strength but also still in touch with vulnerability and sensitivity about these issues, because they’re all a part of who I am.

Which would you rather talk about first, your background or your work?

OK, I think it’s important to first know about my own mental health and how colorful it’s been over the years. It was particularly defined by three suicide attempts. One was quite major. I call it my “double dare” because I was definitely committed to it. The other two I resonate with being calls for help, not having the tools to express myself or ask for help other than to try and take my own life. I guess I came to that point after a number of years of being exposed to trauma. I internalized that experience and the pain, and I guess with a very sensitive personality and propensity to internalize rather than express
what I was feeling, I fell into a deep depression.

So every channel I ever looked to for support led me to psychiatry, which means I have had about eight hospital admissions, mostly voluntary. And I’ve found psychiatry to be very useful, particularly in crisis times when I’ve needed critical support. I found medications a helpful tool while working closely with a psychiatrist who was committed to seeing me as a whole person, not just a chemically imbalanced person, and so I found that psychiatry was quite useful.

However, once I was part of the mental health care system, I found it was very difficult to break away from it, and every other kind of psychological issue I had tended to be interpreted though a psychiatric lens. I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder, psychosis and
premenstrual dysphoric disorder. I began to question psychiatry and the idea that I was mentally ill in a number of ways.

As I grew into my adulthood, I took it upon myself to explore other alternatives. I like to think of it as self-development. Basically ways I could learn to look after myself, overcome distressing moods or emotions and the instability of my moods. I wanted to investigate some of the spiritual, existential questions I had, to get to the core of a lot of issues troubling me, that I didn’t think adequately fit under the banner of mental illness and the diagnoses I had received. So yeah, it just kind of showed me how really quite limited psychiatry and the medical model is, although it can be useful if applied by an expert at a critical time, like crises.

I have since then been trying to unhook myself from ideas around mental illness and safely take myself off medications and learn new tools and techniques. I still get depressed, I still contemplate suicide at times, and instead I focus on how I can be with those challenging states in a more creative, transformative way, or in a way that’s more empowering than considering myself as mentally ill and taking a pill to deal with that. And so I find myself nowadays living a much more rich and exciting lifestyle where I learned many things, from yoga to martial arts, dance, writing, life modeling, women’s mysteries and shamanic healing practices. I’ve met with many shamans, yoga teachers, philosophers, artists and therapists. I don’t like to use the word “guru,” but people of a spiritual nature have assisted me to explore my human experience instead of settle on diagnoses of being mentally ill. Which leads me to The Babyfacedassassin.

What’s that?

Well, I can’t give it all away because it’s part of a trilogy I’ve authored to share my story and how this character came about. In short, the Babyfacedassassin is like an assassin, extremely well-equipped and highly skilled in being with the negative mind and challenging
emotions. She’s incredibly versed at being kind, at enacting self-love, unconditional self-love, embracing ways of the heart and self-care in the face of experiencing self-harming impulses, or feeling depressed or suicidal. The key for me has been to master living with these aspects of myself and still care for myself at the same time as feeling like harming myself. I think that’s the biggest challenge anyone feels: being your
worst enemy and simultaneously trying to exercise a part of you that really cares for yourself. She represents that self-care, and she draws from the creative, embodiment and sacred arts to activate her strength in the face of personal challenges.

So this is a book, a performance?

It’s a trilogy, and the first book will be released in August. I’m launching it at Burning Man. It’s called “Rhymes for the Recently Dis-Eased.” It’s a verse novel told in rhyme, written specifically for people who feel depressed, or are contemplating suicide or self-harm. It’s written based on my own story at that crisis point of waking up on the other side of trying to kill myself. It tracks my experience, told in rhyme in a kind of Dr. Seuss-ian style to try to alleviate the heaviness of the themes and speak to the inner child of us all. And it documents everything I learned about what I had to do for myself when I woke up from attempting suicide, and what I had to face within myself and in life, and how I in the end triumphed and got myself through that challenging time. It’s a story close to my heart, one I want to share.

There’s a lot of shame around trying to commit suicide, and I haven’t ever really felt that shame. If anything, me talking about it has been one of the best ways to recover from it and ask for help, and I don’t understand why people judge people for not coping in life. My understanding of suicide is simple: Someone is not coping. It doesn’t make sense that there’s shame around that. In sharing my book, my hope will be to open more dialogue
about that experience, which I think a lot of people have. We need to talk about it more, in ways that are very authentic, but not too confronting, because it’s a very traumatic experience. So this is my way of creatively sharing my experience, with the hope that it might provide comfort for people who might have experienced something similar, and
represent the experience of suicide for people who’ve never even thought about it, to provide them with a sense of what it may be like.

You mentioned “not too confronting.” What do you mean by that?

I think that if you just shove self-harm and suicide in people’s faces, then it can quite insensitive to people’s feelings around the issue. I think there is an art in introducing these themes to people because they can be quite disturbing, traumatizing. If the intention is to encourage people to become a little more accepting that this is a part of the human condition, that people are struggling with this every day, there can be accessible and creative ways of introducing this into their lives a little more.

The idea of suicide was introduced to me because I witnessed someone in a suicidal moment. It was very traumatizing. I use that as an example of how damaging it can be. Just because we need to talk about something doesn’t mean we have to present it as it
really is, but we can talk about it in ways bearing in mind that it might be difficult for some people to resonate with, accept or even consider as a human experience. There’s a lot of fear around mental health issues, and I think we can dispel those fears in gentle ways.

Any examples of ways that didn’t work?

One comes to mind, a campaign in Victoria in Australia called Beyond Blue. They have recently launched a campaign about anxiety, and in doing so, they have posted a video of a man who is pretending to be the embodiment of anxiety, and he presents in quite a frightening little video. He describes himself as anxiety, talked about the threat of anxiety. I find that to be a distressing way to bring awareness to the theme of an emotion that people experience on a regular basis that can be quite challenging for them. In a way, I think it’s insensitive and frightening, and I don’t think it’s necessary to talk about states of
being in such a way where you’re enacting the very fearful thing itself. Because I wonder with this campaign, if they were to start a dialogue about suicide, would they have an actor standing on the set voicing the impulse of suicide? I think that would be really confronting, disturbing and not really productive in what they’re trying to achieve. I was very, very, very shocked to see this campaign had invested so much resources into presenting anxiety in a way that just wasn’t very caring for the human being to watch. I don’t think we need to learn about it by having it in your face like that. It’s hard enough experiencing it, let alone
having it thrown in your face.

I think what’s more constructive is focusing on the inspiring ways that people are living with these states of being and how they can enact care for themselves in the face of those experiences. I think it would be much more inspiring, educative and empowering for people to watch videos like these.

There seems to be nervousness in some mental health organizations about even acknowledging people who’ve been suicidal.

You’re absolutely right, it makes no sense to me. I think it’s just a reflection of just how uncomfortable people are in general in talking about difficult emotions. It’s just a sign of the times.

Do you see any signs of this changing?

Yeah, I think that with technology these days, the Internet, and the plethora of ways to express stories, it will change. If people with lived experience are now being given a greater voice, I think the more they step forward and talk about their experience the way they want to, not how particular governing organizations think they should frame their experience, we’ll see some real stories.

One reason I’m not an advocate or spokesperson at mental health organizations is that I don’t completely agree with the medical model, and so I don’t choose to talk about my experience through that model. I’m much more interested in pursuing channels where I can communicate about my experiences and speak honestly about what I think about psychiatry and many other healing arts one can take. The medical model is very dominating, and I think it’s inadequate. And I don’t want to talk about my experiences
through the language of mental illness, because that language is not adequate either.

How will you go about launching your project at Burning Man?

My performance is presented as The Babyfacedassassin, so I take on her persona. It’s a spoken word from her perspective. Basically, that means a commentary on how the status quo is approaching the human experience of psychological, emotional and spiritual challenges and speaking directly about how far we’ve moved away from our hearts in
that process and how much we’ve allowed our minds to dominate our emotional experiences. That’s what the piece is about, characterizing, speaking from her point of view as an advocate of the creative, embodiment and sacred arts, which is a lot more heart- and soul-based, and questioning how did we come so far as to create a mental
health care system that is completely dominated by the mind with very little room for heart and soul.

Because in my opinion, psychiatry finds itself in this gridlock because it has just tried to take every kind of human experience possible and define it through logic, analysis, all mind-perspectives rather than looking at healing that’s heart-based, soul-based. That doesn’t mean being religious, that means attributing sacredness and the meaning of one’s life and experience to the issue at hand and how people go about finding meaning through
their challenges. When you look at the DSM-5, that’s how psychiatry is finding meaning from people’s behavior. It’s moved far away from the idea that people are fundamentally being driven by love, and healing comes from love. Especially when it comes to resolving psychological issues.

For me, overcoming suicide and overcoming feeling suicidal is to come into my own self-love. It’s not solely a mind game of positive affirmations and changing my thinking. It comes from feeling my own self-love and self-care. So yeah, I guess my performance will aim to open people’s hearts when they think about mental health care.

What are other examples of self-love and self-care?

Aside from, like, yoga?

Yes.

Well, one really basic practice I have is to put my hand on my heart. Sometimes I have walked around all day with my hand on my heart alone at home to show me my heart is beating more loudly than my mind. That’s a really simple practice that has enabled me to pick up the phone and call someone, to ask myself, “What do I really need right now?” It’s just a simple act of locating my heart, having a conversation with my heart. It doesn’t even really need to be too technical, or need to know a special yoga or martial art or something. It’s that really simple practice of being in tune with your own heart, which for me has been
life-saving. And when I may not be able to handle something on my own, it becomes that voice that says “You need to pick up the phone.” To me, that’s my heart speaking, while my mind is thinking very dark and negative thoughts.

What has been the response from your family and friends?

Creating a big, strong community has been one of my tools in creating a stronger sense of mental health. So this isn’t really new for my family, friends or community, because over the years I’ve connected with people who are aware that at times I struggle with depression and who love me just the same. My family has always been with me when I was in the hospital, they’ve witnessed my journey so far, and I guess I just decided to, you know, have people in my life who don’t judge me, are there for me, who don’t necessarily have all the answers, nor do I expect them to, but accept me for who I am, as someone who sometimes has extreme personal challenges. I think mental health can come about through creating a community of people around you who genuinely care. You can’t expect anyone to solve your issues, but you can seek out people who are going to be there for you and love you unconditionally.

I receive a lot of support from my community about the project I’ve launched, people contacting me, sharing a bit about what they’ve gone through. People have opened up a little more about their own personal struggles. Some people have commented that The
Babyfacedassassin has created more awareness in the community that people might be going through certain things. Just opening up more care in the community. It’s all been very positive. Creating a community around you where you can be real with them is very important for everyone. For me, who’s had to get myself out of some dark places, it’s
been important to have friends who don’t judge me for that.

How did you decide to take this public?

Probably my instinct as a writer has inspired me most because I’ve always written. I feel gifted with the ability to communicate well with the written word. I’ve written through all my troubled years. When it came to decide what I really wanted to write about, I’ve written stories, a novella, but really at the heart of my stories are these experiences with the common theme of mental health. The writer in me decided that if I was going to write and write it well, I would focus on mental health and with a particular niche of writing about suicide and depression and self-harm. So that would have been my first motivation to share it with the world.

Secondly, I wanted to get myself to a point of stability and then share my learning with the world. I think if I were still in the throes of, you know, coming off medication, emotional instability, not knowing what I believe in within the mental health care system, it wouldn’t be
a successful project. I really found a point within myself where I knew what I believed in and what has worked for me. If I could share it with others, with the hope they would get something from that as well … I wanted to make sure I was mentally fit and strong before I embarked on this project.

What more would you like to do? Where will this go?

I’m launching a community well-being directory at the end of the year called BeyondBrain – The Heart and Soul Campaign. It will feature individuals and organizations who are of service to mental health and well-being but don’t utilize the medical model. My goal is to have that linked to government organizations of mental health care because not everyone is interested in medical approaches, and there just seems to be a lack of a directory that’s accessible for people to find out about art therapies, life coaches, yoga teachers, all kinds of people involved in well-being and healing. There doesn’t seem to be access to that
through the government websites here in Australia, and I think there should be. I think people should have a choice. There are people doing amazing things in the community and they are under-represented.

The other project is in early stages, that is, to create what I call a role of a suicide midwife, which is someone who can be present with someone after they have tried to take their life and provide support. Because I feel it’s a very sensitive time for someone, and the usual approach is to quickly medicate them and quickly diagnose them with some mental
illness. For me, they’re probably the most unhelpful things you need at that time, and I’m really reflecting on all I learned from my experience to find other ways to support someone. It’s like a rebirth. Your life will never be the same after that experience. I think it can become a positive learning experience. I think there’s a lot of scope for how we can support each other in that time. It’s a very challenging time. It was the hardest time in my life. I think we could approach it with a lot more sensitivity and gentleness. And I think a lot of positive things can come out of it. I don’t mean to glorify that experience, but I feel people can really find their strength on the other side if given that support.

Are you offering to be the midwife or to train loved ones to be midwives?

I believe I could be both. I’m sure I could provide insight that someone who just tried to take their life would find hard to communicate. I could mediate, be in that space, articulate what that person could benefit from. But that’s my own experience so I would be careful not to impose my own perspectives. But yeah, primarily to be with that person in a therapeutic sense but not apply particular therapeutic models or methods. I think what people need in that place is a lot of presence, empathy and a lot of time and space just to process what’s happened and to come to terms and make decisions slowly about how to move on in their life. I often wonder if I have something that I can give back to the world in that way, because I just understand very well what it feels like to be in that position. And so, yeah, if it means supporting family and friends in some way, that would be wonderful too.

I think one of the things, though, that I’ve stood by and will continue to stand by is that I’m
not a therapist and not planning on becoming a therapist. I think there are some wonderful therapies out there, but I really would like to maintain a role as a woman with certain experiences, an autonomous person that understands and isn’t coming with any framework to apply to someone’s life. I think it could be really refreshing because doctors, psychiatrists, therapists all have their framework. I like to think I’m a woman with no framework. The lived experience is often where we find our greatest understanding. Sometimes it’s good to just have someone who understands and isn’t going to try and apply something, diagnose you. That’s not always helpful.

Do you have any examples of post-attempt or post-hospitalization where you felt you weren’t getting the help you needed?

There was a pivotal approach in my growth. I was in the hospital, lining up for meds every morning and night, and the penny dropped. They were just going to give me meds the more I kept asking this system for help. So while the meds may have been helpful in some ways, they weren’t answering the questions to my issues. None of them could adequately address those issues. These were issues like my body, my self-esteem, my existence, why am I here, why I’d taken on certain patterns of behavior, just bigger questions that the med dispensary wasn’t going to answer for me. Just in that moment, that “Groundhog
Day” of people waking up, getting meds, going to bed, I realized it was not adequate for the kind of support I was looking for.

But by the same token, as a medical framework they were doing the best with what they had. It wasn’t up to them, it was up to me to hunt down what I needed. Sometimes people look to psychiatry for more answers than what psychiatry can provide. There are questions about spirituality, identity, place in the world. I just don’t think you can expect
psychiatry to answer all those questions.

But I would also say, I was always struck by how quickly doctors could diagnose you. Often the consultation was 20 minutes long. I think that’s very interesting. As a duty of care, I don’t understand how anyone can diagnose anyone in that amount of time. I think we need to rethink that whole process. I established a relationship with a psychiatrist over eight years which has been extremely valuable, but I’ve also encountered psychiatrists dropping in, asking a few questions, then presenting you with an illness. I think everyone should question that.

There’s also very little support and guidance for coming off medication. I think psychiatry is very good at putting people on medication, but there’s a big black hole for those who responsibly want to come off meds. I’ve never been encouraged to come off them, so I’ve had to conduct my own research and find my own way. I’ve done it responsibly over three to four years. But I’ve never met a psychiatrist who’s supported me by showing me ways to come off meds. So I question that as well, and I hope the Community Wellbeing Directory will provide avenues for people looking to move on from medication and psychiatry.

What have I not asked?

I think I’d like to note that the marriage of life modeling with The Babyfacedassassin is a really important feature that’s likely to be misunderstood, so I want to clarify. Life modeling is something, for me, that has been very helpful in coming to terms with my depression and its underlying issues. And the reason I use it in my project is really as a visual metaphor to remind people that when we strip back in all our nakedness, we’re really coming from our true place of being human, and so in combining that visual metaphor of the nude, I’m really trying to drive that home.

We don’t need to keep labeling ourselves. It’s not useful to keep labeling our behavior with different mental illnesses. And if we become more comfortable with our experiences as they are without pigeonholing them, then we actually can learn more from each other and can find more creative ways of expressing what we’re going through without necessarily viewing it as an illness. That’s why the nudity is a really strong feature in my project. And to remind people of the purity and sacredness of their existence, even during their most vulnerable moments. It’s a valid human experience to feel depressed and not coping with life, and we’re living in a world that’s very challenging for many reasons. If people can perhaps own that a little more, own that struggle a little more rather than be quick to pathologize it, we probably would end up being more real with each other and learn to better understand each other and our unique needs.

How does life modeling fit in?

I started as being a professional life model, posing nude for artists. I’ve been doing it for about six years. It was one of the first jobs I did when I came out of the hospital. It allowed me to merge back into the community. It gave me a sense of purpose but also allowed me to be comfortable within my body and existence and be accepting of that because a part of trying to take your life is not accepting you’re alive. It became a sort of healing art form. I realized that the life modeling and the artistic community was a very positive culture to immerse myself in. I didn’t have to talk about my depression, but I could slowly come
to terms with myself, gain some power back.

So when I was bringing together the elements of The Babyfacedassassin, I decided to use life modeling, the nude, to tell my story, to use the nude as a metaphor for being real, finding strength in our naked moments of truth. And to represent the freedoms of our nature, without labels, diagnoses or fear of judgment. I just wanted to clarify that. Because, you know, nude modeling comes with misconceptions.

How do you use this?

I use it in my blogs as a way of providing images, to bolster the storytelling. And I use my body as a way of representing the human experience.

Not in real life?

I’ve been tempted to, but not yet. It depends on how bad it gets in mental health care! It’s a way of making a statement, arousing attention as well. The ideas of suicide and nudity are not usually juxtaposed. To feel suicidal and ask for help is probably the most vulnerable experience you can ever have. It has been for me, when I feel very naked and very raw. As an artist I’m trying to pull those elements together, to talk openly about that vulnerability in a creative way. And the second book of the trilogy is based on that: It’s about the body and how body awareness can assist with psychological challenges.

It’s written?

Written but not published. It will be available for free through the website, as an e-book first.

Do you have any advice for friends and family of people who’ve been suicidal?

I think the best thing that carers and loved ones can do is, whilst it may be painful for them to witness a loved one in deep depression, to look after themselves and their own lives because it can be more inspiring, and to do so with the sensitivity that the person who may be depressed may not have the same spark of life within them to keep up at their pace
or vigor. Because that will to live is absent or very weak for someone who is depressed. So I think for people who want to help, they don’t need to specifically understand what’s going on. I think they can be inspiring by living their life and looking after themselves and just offering their presence and empathy when the person needs it. Presence and
empathy. Not shying away or trivializing the challenges of another. It’s meeting them eye to eye and being there even while not understanding what’s going on and alleviating pressure and stress where they can.

And I think for carers it may be useful to know that on a certain level there is sometimes nothing they can do if someone is feeling very depressed. There is a degree of self-responsibility for someone who is suffering, that, in order overcome their challenges, they need to claim that responsibility. It’s like when people take their lives and people
wish they could have done something … When people do it, they are too focused on getting out of pain instead of what people could do for them. Instead of trying to fix the situation for someone, there’s only so much they can do. For all of us, we’re all responsible for our mental health and well-being. It’s all about believing in each other, that we can get through a hard time, trying to empower and inspire each other, and having faith in our friends when they have no faith in themselves.

But it’s a very tricky one, and I have a lot of empathy for the dynamic between someone who is unwell and a carer. God knows I’ve been a nightmare to live with for my family, but they’ve always done what they could. But I’ve really had to learn to take responsibility for what’s going on within myself. Rightly so, they’ve been frustrated, snapped at me, out
of tough love said things that were not necessarily gentle. But I know they were just trying to reactivate my motivation.

Was the tough love helpful?

In all honestly, yeah, there were things my family said at times that stuck in my mind. They may have said something like, “Could you just make an effort to greet the day this morning? We all have to try to make an effort.” I hated to hear it, but it snapped me out of my victimhood. They made me realize, “I’m not helping, am I? I’m really stuck in my shit. Perhaps everyone’s having a hard time, we all have to pull ourselves out of something.” Sometimes it helped me say, “Come on, Charlotte, everyone has to try. I’ve had some hard times, but on some level I’m going to have to try to make the most of it like everyone else and drop my sad story.”

I remember those moments. I wouldn’t say it’s the approach we should always take with each other, but when a family member tells you that, you do think twice. “I have to get a grip on my health. No one’s going to do it for me.” Those are the tough love conversations you need to have with yourself, and particularly waking up on the other side of attempting suicide is when you have the toughest conversations with yourself.

Who else are you?

I’m a dancer, and I perform with burlesque fans. I’ve been inspired by burlesque and classical ballet training. I’m pursuing my hobby of dance, performing at parties and festivals. I really like electronic music, all genres of music really. I created a character called Sputnik Sweetheart, and I seek opportunities to collaborate with musicians. I just love to dance, I hope to keep dancing to the end. It’s lots of fun, gets me out of my head. Yeah. And I get a lot of pleasure from it, and connecting with people on the dance floor.

Talking with CW Tillman

Coming across CW Tillman a couple of years ago was a breakthrough. I had decided to stop keeping my own experience a secret and be open, but I was surprised to find no resources out there for people like myself. A researcher finally mentioned that an upcoming conference of the American Association of Suicidology would feature a full-membership session on attempt survivors for the very first time. Off I went to see. And in front of hundreds of buzzing suicide researchers, clinicians and crisis workers, CW calmly told his story. This was the spring of 2011.

After he spoke, “People came up and said, ‘I understand, I went through similar experiences,'” CW says. “I really felt like they were saying that for the first time to someone outside their circle. Because of the really hushed way that they said it. More off to the side.”

CW and I met again this year when he came to New York City to visit friends _ who turned out to live on the block next to mine. Here, he talks about his national debut as a public speaker, the absurdities he came across in the psychiatric ward and the career he’s built with American Sign Language interpreting from his experience being sneaky as a child in school.

Who are you? Please introduce yourself.

I’m CW Tillman. This is a tough one. So broad. I think I really identify with how we’ve talked about in the disability movement: “People first.” I’m everything else as a person, and then I have other challenges or disabilities or whatever way you want to describe the experience in my life. To that end, I’m also a suicide attempt survivor and I also have lived experience with bipolar, mainly on the depression side of the scale, which has been a challenge at times. And still people don’t understand that depression isn’t a “pull yourself up by the bootstraps,” not something you simply change by changing your environment. It’s not just situational, it’s much deeper than that.

But as a person, I’m a friend, a son, a father. I have an 11-year-old. I’m much older than I look, which has positives and negatives. Professionally, it’s sort of a negative because people think I’m a lot younger, so I feel they don’t give the same respect or … They don’t realize I have a lot more experience and things to contribute right at first. But everybody sort of wants to look young, so that’s the advantage. And I love playing the “Guess how old I am?” Sometimes it’s a 15-year difference. When I tell them, I always get the “No way.”

How did you get to be talking to me now about this?

Several years ago, I was asked by (former president) Michelle Linn-Gust to be part of a plenary session for the AAS conference, talking about experiences about being a suicide attempt survivor. It was immediately after that talk that I met you, and, as they say, the rest is history.

What was the experience you talked about?

It started out with my own experience in high school, where I was fighting depression. I lived in a very small town where things like that were not discussed. I didn’t know anything about depression or other types of mental illness. “Oh, that person’s a little different.” It’s something never talked about. I’d never really heard those terms before.

My sophomore year, I was really struggling. I couldn’t talk to anybody. I didn’t know who to talk to, what to do, and I ended up just wanting to end the pain I was experiencing. At that point, I had decided to jump from a four-story window in a classroom building, and while I was sitting there, another student came in. And was quite freaked out. He left, and a teacher came in and was able to talk me down. After that, I went to the counseling office. There was only one counselor at my high school, primarily an academic counselor, who talked to me for 30 minutes. Looking back, I don’t think there was anything really substantive in that conversation, just general care and concern. “Please don’t do that again.” The bell rang for lunch, and she said, “You probably should go to lunch now.”

I went to lunch and went through the rest of the day. My last-period teacher came up and gave me a hug and said, “If you ever need to talk, let me know.” I walked home. Both my parents were home, and they sat down for an hour and talked to me. Again, “We don’t want anything to happen to you.” We never discussed it again. No follow-up. Out of sight, out of mind, maybe.

Later, I was dating somebody who seemed to be doing OK, a good student involved in student activities and had what appeared to be a great relationship with her family and other people. There were no signs of things being wrong. But we grew up together, and she moved to Ohio and we started dating again when she was in Ohio and I was in Missouri, and I drove back and forth. We talked on the phone a lot. One day, there was something different about the tone and how it was said, and I knew something was wrong. She denied it, didn’t want to discuss it any further. I changed my work schedule and drove out and surprised her. And even when I was there, she said, “Everything’s fine.” It appeared to be fine. I went home, and a few more weeks before I could visit, the phone woke me up around 2 in the morning. Her twin brother was on the phone. The only thing he said was, “She’s gone.” I found out later that she committed suicide at home and called in sick after her brother had gone to work, so he wouldn’t know she wasn’t there. Other friends assumed she was at home sick.

And it was a few years after that that my depression was getting a lot worse, and I tried to get some help once I was having severe anxiety issues. At the time, I was working with 911. And so I called for an ambulance, and when the paramedics got there and were talking to me about what was going on, they said, “If we take you anywhere, it could ruin your job or career.” Like instant stigma at that point. I think they meant well, but they just didn’t understand the seriousness of what was going on.

I talked to my general practitioner, who prescribed an anxiety medication. At that point, the side effects were overwhelming. I wasn’t able to deal with it. I had strong sensitivity to light, severe claustrophobia. Even in a small room this size with two people, I would be freaking out. I would need to be in a larger space. So I stopped taking the medication on my own. I figured that’s what causing it. Eventually I went back to the doctor, explained the symptoms. I didn’t say I quit. He said, “Stop taking it, let the symptoms clear up, then start taking it again.” In the back of my mind, I was thinking, “OK, that probably sounds great to you, but anyway” … I had no intention of ever restarting.

Things were getting worse at that point, and I ended up overdosing on that medication. And
pretty much after that, I decided that’s probably not what I really wanted to do. I called my
pastor, who called for an ambulance, and it was a different set of paramedics this time. But they took really good care of me. Their actions definitely saved me from very serious problems and most likely saved my life.

So, coming back to your question, it’s based on my lived experiences that I’ve talked somewhat openly to let other people know other supports and resources are out there that weren’t available to me at the time. Because if we can help one person, it’s worth all of
our efforts.

How did you get invited to speak at the conference?

There seems to be no end to the coincidences in my life. Like you living a block from my friends in Manhattan. I lived in New Mexico before the DC area. I was in a hospital there, still grappling with the loss of my girlfriend, so I was referred to a survivors of suicide group. I started going. And if I’m not mistaken, I believe it’s the longest-running SOS group in the U.S., like 30 years. I want to say that Michelle had just written her first book, and she lived in Albuquerque too. She spoke at one of the meetings. We met there, then reconnected through Facebook. And I had made a post about suicide no longer being a silent killer, on Facebook, and I talked a little bit about my experiences. I wanted people to know support was out there, and it’s not something we can keep quiet about any longer. And she had saw that. I met her in 2000, roughly. And then the conference was in 2011, so 10-year stretch there.

How did you make the decision to speak openly, and how did you feel before speaking?

I was quietly honored that she asked me. I had been involved with various organizations and had done various public speaking, so that part really didn’t scare me. Prior to that, I worked for a national mental health organization and had done several interviews. One was in Forbes and the other was in The Chicago Tribune. And so there’s things in print with my name and experiences, so it’s not really a secret. But it’s maybe a little easier to talk to one person as a reporter and let them put your words down as opposed to standing up in front of a crowd of, like, 1,000 people and saying “Here are my experiences” with all their eyes looking at you.

I remember I accepted fairly quickly. But then, kind of, once I got to Portland, it was really
rough. It became real at that point. I got there, checked in, went to register, and I was kind of hoping to run into somebody I knew. I was starting to get pretty overwhelmed with realizing what I had gotten myself into. So I texted a couple people to say, “Hey, want to meet up?” I didn’t hear from one, and another was in a meeting. It was more like, “Hey want to catch up?” instead of, “Hey, I need your support.”

I was sitting near the registration, and someone came up at just the right time to say, “Hey, how are you doing? We were able to chit-chat a bit, and that put me more at ease. And then before the talk, I talked to several of my close friends who know my story, and I kind of asked them to sit fairly close to the front. I told them, “I just need to be able to look out and see a friendly face.” They actually spread out a little bit, so that helped me to
focus on a few people in the audience in various areas. It kind of helped me whittle down the crowd to a more manageable group instead of having to look out at a sea of people.

You said someone spoke to you at just the right time? What does that mean?

At that point, I was really struggling with my decision to be that open about my experiences. And even though if there’s any place to do it, it’s in front of peers and supporters, but it just still kind of felt, it was still almost a room full of strangers. I still had those questions in the back of my mind: “How will they accept what I say? Am I going to be treated differently because of it?”

And really, after the presentation, there was nothing but really positive things that people said. People came up and said, “I understand, I went through similar experiences.” I really felt like they were saying that for the first time to someone outside their circle. Because of the really hushed way that they said it. More off to the side. People who were a little more open about it were like, “Good job! You captured what everybody has wanted to say over the years.”

Did it surprise you it had taken that long to have such a presentation?

Yes and no. I think that even within the mental health community, a lot of the groups are started more by family members as opposed to _ I don’t like the word, but we seem to use it _ the consumer. So it seems that in mental health it’s the family members, and more recently the consumers are kind of joining in, having a voice. The same in suicide prevention. Mainly it’s been around those who lost somebody to suicide and their struggles and their pain and their path. But there’s still a lot of rawness around those feelings, which I think _ this is totally speculation _ they feel that wound is re-opened when hearing from people who’ve made attempts and lived, there’s the possibility they’re thinking that “My loved one could have lived, but didn’t.”

So are they angry or uncomfortable?

Uncomfortable. It reopens whatever feelings they have around their own loss.

Why didn’t consumers create their own voice long ago?

I’m really not sure. It seems that other consumer groups, there kind of seems to be two types. There’s _ for the lack of a better way to say _ a more radical group, and then there’s the ones who want to try to make change within the system. I think the more radical groups kind of get shunned in general, and even though they’re passionate, they don’t get the same encouragement and don’t have the same effect overall. And the ones working within the system, it’s really slow going because of the viewpoints of the ones who say, “We’ve always done it this way.” And it’s just hard to organize anything for such a small subset of people.

Did Michelle ever say why she decided to have the presentation?

She hasn’t said exactly. Her personality is really about openness and inclusion, seeing all sides of what’s happening. I think she recognizes that’s the one piece that’s really missing. And with her being president, she can make those changes quite easily.

What has this changed?

I think I still struggle with the fact that it’s so public. And I still have a fairly irrational fear of
how people are going to treat me when they find out about my past. Even though it doesn’t
necessarily fully define me as a person. And I kind of teeter-totter back and forth between “It’s already out there in print” and “Here’s some additional information.” But I think it’s still really important that we let others know they’re not alone. As I said, there’s resources out there, people who will support you. I have people in my support network at 4 in the morning who will drop what they’re doing and support me. I have a really good friend who is in a very demanding job, and I can call him in the middle of the day, and he will stop what he’s doing and help, if that’s what I need. And I don’t think people realize that almost everybody has at least one person like that in their lives.

Is there any evidence of your speaking out affecting how you’re treated?

Yeah. We live in the Google age now, and I’ve had some dating experiences where things
seemed to be going all right, then they bring up, “Oh yeah, I was reading this little article about you,” and people just act a little different or distance themselves. That seems to be the end of it, though everything else was fine. And then I have close friends that have varying levels of comfort in talking about my experiences, and some I talk to and some I don’t, but they don’t treat me any different otherwise. I think the biggest part is that, especially since you can Google anything these days, like looking for future jobs, if the employer looks at that and makes a decision adversely around it … I’m actually pretty fortunate. The job I have now, they Googled me, but actually my experiences are more of a strength because we work with people who might have issues of their own. And knowing the system serves as an advantage for some work I do. So I can turn it around and be a strength as well. But my gut says that’s rare as opposed to the stigma and negative stereotypes that surround it. It’s changing, but I think there’s not a balance there yet.

Tell me about your work and studies.

I just finished a degree in American Sign Language interpreting. And so I work for a company that does job mentoring for deaf clients who are referred to us by a state agency. Also, we have a grant for health care advocacy in the deaf community. So with job mentoring, I actually help with resume building, interview skills, going through the application process, helping interpret those assessment surveys they do a lot with jobs now, to see your personality. And once the client is hired somewhere, we do on-site supports, check in, any cultural mediation, any issues in the workplace, help educate the employer, the employees, communication tactics. Basically, how to work with deaf people.

With the health care advocacy piece, we help individual advocacy with health care providers who are willing to provide interpreters, a means of communication. We’ve had instances where a health care provider sends a bill for an interpreter to the client,
when it’s actually a business expense they need to pay themselves. We do workshops on health issues for deaf people. And we have clients that struggle with various issues that are, you know, some have counseling. It’s good to be able to understand what they’re going through and support them. A lot don’t really know my full background, but at least I’m able to empathize and support them.

Are you interpreting while they’re being counseled?

No, I don’t interpret for them. There is a counselor who signs.

How did you get into sign language?

In elementary school, a friend and I learned how to finger spell to talk without the teacher
knowing. I thought, “This is really interesting.” I got a book and taught myself vocabulary. The next year I was on safety patrol as a crossing guard, with the little reflective sash. There was a parent who dropped their kid off, and the parent was deaf. I started signing with them, going to their house sometimes. I was never shy about approaching people at the mall or in public who were signing. It was always well-received: “Look at the little cute boy who knows how to sign a little bit!”

It was always been in the back of my mind to do something that was related to signing. At that point, I was pretty well stuck in the position I had and saw little chance for advancement. I made the decision to go to school and become an interpreter. Actually, it worked out pretty well that after I started school, I got laid off, and I could focus exclusively for a while without having the demands of a full-time job. Some of the research I’ve done for papers for school, within mental health, the deaf community is really underserved. There’s little research around suicide within the deaf community. Some say it’s higher, some say the same. There’s no real evidence so far. But we do know that services are extremely limited in their native language.

Do you plan to be a counselor, too?

I don’t believe so. I do like providing direct services. I really like to be on the front lines of
services. I’m looking at eventually doing vocational rehab counseling. The advantage of being a peer is that I have shared experiences, and now I have ASL fluency. One thing I’m looking at doing is being trained to facilitate WRAP in ASL. The WRAP program, built by Mary Ellen Copeland, is a wellness recovery action plan. It’s a plan you can make when you’re well: what kinds of things you like to do when you’re well, what kinds of things crop up when you’re symptomatic, how you can counteract those symptoms when things are getting toward crisis. What is my crisis plan? Who do I call? What kind of treatment do I want? Who do I want to make those decisions for me? How do I leave the crisis plan and go back to kind of the status quo for myself? It’s really just creating a kind of wellness plan that you can recognize your own challenges and what to do to meet those challenges. As far as I know, no one is offering WRAP in ASL.

What is your grand goal?

I’m not really sure there is a grand goal. I’ve just always enjoyed helping others. It’s kind of been my defense mechanism as well, so I have to be careful about making sure to still focus on myself when I need to. Because what ends up happening, if I’m not doing well, I’ll help others instead of taking the time I need for myself. So even the first time I was in the  hospital, I seemed to be kind of focusing on some of the other patients, you know, being buddy buddy, supporting them: “Do you know about this resource?” Instead of really taking the time to focus on what my needs were. And I was still doing work from the patient phone, essentially. We were just finishing up with the implementation of 911 in my county. So I was literally calling each of the different phone companies’ data conversion reps, checking everything from the patient phone. Because I had their phone numbers memorized.

And nobody knew where you were?

They knew I was out sick. One of the companies that was out in California, they ended up
knowing I was in the hospital, but they didn’t know what for. It was Christmas time. They
said, “Can we send you a care package?” I said yes. It turns out they went to each others’ desks and collected different Christmas stuff and put it in a box that same day and shipped it out. Christmas pencils, candy, a Santa mug, things people had collected at their desks. It was really super nice.

And one of our local reps and other peers knew I was  in the hospital. I ended up telling them what was going on a bit, and they actually were able to come and take me out to lunch. The hospital at the time was fairly progressive. Structured groups all day, day passes where you could leave the unit if you were at certain levels. If you were at the most privileged level, when people took smoke breaks you could actually sign yourself out of the unit and walk around inside the building or outside. You’re not supposed to cross any of the streets. But you still had a sense of freedom, you weren’t locked in the unit with no chance of leaving until discharge. Once a week, they also had outings, so we’d go bowling or to a museum or to a movie. It really gave you a sense of normalcy.

I’m not sure why I always forget this connection, but the other deaf piece that comes in … There was another patient who was deaf and legally blind, who could only see if something was pretty much right in front of his face. We all were going to a group that was led by a counselor, everybody from the unit. This patient was sitting and reading by himself while everybody else went to the group. Partway through the group, the door opened and a staff member kind of pushed him through the door to join everybody. But there was no interpreter there. I was far from fluent but also felt that he needed to be able to know what was going on and be a part of that group. And I actually moved and sat on the floor in front of him and interpreted, and really, I was not even interpreting, just trying to get it across the best I could what was going on. I later talked to the staff and asked, “How can you bring this person in and have no interpreter, which you’re legally required to have, and force him to sit here when he’s not causing anybody problems by reading on his own?” They were like, “Well, you’re not an interpreter. So you can’t interpret anymore.” I was like, “Fine, but you need to provide it.”

Did they?

Not very often. They said, “Oh we scheduled them, but they didn’t show up.” Just excuses.

Did you get in trouble for speaking up?

No, but they were just not happy.

Do you think the hospital experience helps, overall?

That hospital, I was there twice. That was the most productive hospitalization I ever had. I’m not sure whether somebody else coined this, but there’s this thing I say now about psych hospitalization. It’s basically, “Evaluate, medicate, vacate.” That’s all they do. And you pretty much, you might see an individual therapist and social worker and your psychiatrist, but there are no groups, no activities. You’re simply warehoused, and they try to medicate the acute symptoms. And once they’re done, you’re out the door. And when I’ve talked to staff in a hospital that pretty much does that, the answer they end up giving is, “It’s a matter of the money we have available to provide services.” But the thing I don’t understand is, the same hospital I was at had the same amount of staff that’s sitting behind the desk all day as a hospital that’s not providing services all day long. And the hospitals that don’t have programs are at fairly prestigious institutions that you’d think would have exceptional care. I’ll try not to call anybody out.

Or if they do stuff, it’s, “Here are a bunch of magazines. Do a collage about how you feel.” If I have to do one more collage … It’s just not for me.

What else needs to be done to change the system?

I think there needs to be supports more similar to, like, the partial hospitalization system or
where there are supports without having to be in a locked unit. I think once you enter a unit and that door locks behind you and you know you can’t get out, there’s a certain amount of dignity that you lose. And there’s people that are struggling that need some support and might need some overnight support, but they’re nowhere near the breaking point where they need 10-minute bed checks and a locked unit and you don’t have your shoelaces.

And it’s just a litigious society that we have, there’s such risk aversion. So I think about what they’re doing in New Mexico with Sabrina (Strong), and when I lived in New Mexico, we talked about doing some kind of overnight respite care where people could come and stay if they didn’t want to be at home by themselves overnight. I’m glad it’s actually taking shape and being done. I think there needs to be more of that. I still feel there is a need for acute care, but it can’t just be acute care and warehousing and push you out the door.

Anything else you’d like to add?

I think people just have to, if you’re struggling, there’s always going to be the person who
says, “Let me know what you need.” And really, I know for myself I just have to put my pride aside and answer that question honestly. Because a lot of times, I end up answering, “I don’t know.” I mean, you know you want support, but it’s hard to articulate or set pride aside to ask for what you need. And for those that are supporting people, if you’re willing to be that front-line support, make sure you’re willing to take that call at 4 in the morning and support that person. Over time, I’ve realized that, if anything, people are more important than things, and the work will be there tomorrow, but the person might not be. So for me, people really do come first. If at some point that means I lose my job, I lose my job. But we just don’t support each other anymore.

Who else are you?

I know I kind of alluded to it in the introduction.

True. What else do you wish would come up when people Googled you?

I’m someone who supports my friends, cares about them. I’m a pianist, a cyclist, a kayaker. I sometimes call myself an extroverted introvert. I tend to lean towards introverted but still enjoy being social and being part of the crowd when I need to be.

On the BBC

We were just featured on the BBC’s “World Have Your Say” in a discussion of suicide attempts. If you’re here because of that show, let me also point you to a larger site I edit on the same topic, What Happens Now? It’s for the American Association of Suicidology. Listeners also heard about the Live Through This attempt survivors portrait project, also very worth a look.

Just skip to the second half hour of the BBC show.

Talking with Sue Martin

“I loaded the rifle and shot, at nothing in particular, out across the lake. Then I went back up to the lakehouse.”

A young Sue Martin then turned the gun on herself. Many years later, after blinding herself in her attempt, she finally decided to tell her story. She posted the chapters on her blog, Out of the Whirlpool, and now is turning them into a book. She also has begun telling her story to conferences and support groups with an exuberance that comes from the effort of learning a whole new way to live.

“You think, ‘Suicidal depression, blindness on top of that, holy crap, how can it get any worse?'” she says. “But really and truly, the fact that I had to start all over again and learn absolutely everything once I couldn’t see, that’s what pulled me out of the depression.”

Here, Sue talks about coming out about this issue in polite Southern society, extracting no-harm promises from suicidal friends and the stunning number of people who tell her they’ve attempted as well. “There still seems to be a lot of fear of being honest,” she says. “And that’s what I would like to see changed.”

Who are you? Please introduce yourself.

Well, I grew up in Alabama in a suburb of Birmingham. I had really an unremarkable, I guess, childhood. I mean, it was great. I grew up with horses, my father was a surgeon, and you know, I think it’s hard to describe the sort of ambiance or atmosphere in which I grew up, but there was very much an emphasis on everything being positive, everything being happy and optimistic. And I just accepted that and sort of did it, and I was very happy in childhood. In our family, we had a lot of no-talk subjects, and sort of broadly falling into that category was, you know, talking about a situation that we felt was unfair or negative. And I never even saw my parents have a serious disagreement. When I married Jim, the first time we had an argument, I thought, “Divorce!”

I went through high school and college. I went to the University of the South. And I breezed through college. The work was easy for me. Sewanee is such a wonderful school if you love the outdoors. I majored in English but took a lot of forestry and botany classes. I was on the whitewater kayak and canoe team. And everything came easily to me, academics, sports, it was wonderful.

I did the June bride thing, getting married three weeks after graduating. The man I married had been two years ahead of me, but we actually met in England after he graduated. We did not know each other. And you know, when the wedding was over, when all the dust settled, I sort of had to get to know this man I had married. It was just very difficult. It was, I think, the first time I’m aware of being truly unhappy. The marriage, I don’t think that marriage really had a chance. I didn’t realize how important some things are to me and how utterly uninterested my first husband was in things like nature, outdoor sports, literature.

There was a lot of good stuff. We were married two years. And I think possibly the best part of those two years was, I started as an exercise rider for a couple who were joint masters of a fox hunt, and eventually they invited me to hunt with them. I had grown up in pony club. My parents gave me a pony when I was 7, and then I graduated to horses when I was 12. Fox hunting was the gold standard.

I think I have to go back a little bit. I became bulimic when I was 18, which is much later than most people. And bulimia overshadowed everything. It was like I had this cognitive dissonance in college. I really was having fun, thriving, but overlaying it was always the substance abuse of bulimia. And of course with this substance abuse comes secrecy and control. And by the time I got married, I was still enthralled with my eating disorder, not willing to recognize a problem, and certainly not ready to ask for help. So, for all sorts of reasons, the marriage ended and I moved back to Birmingham.

I got a job in the insurance industry, and one really good thing that happened was, a man who was a family friend, his parents and mine had been friends forever, he found out that I was coming back and had had gotten divorced, and he almost immediately contacted me, and we dated for about a year. It was just wonderful. Coming away from the end of a marriage, this man just helped me so much with my self-concept and helped me not feel like a failure. That relationship ended after about a year. And over the next year, I think, I sank further and further into depression while outwardly pretending life was rosy, because that’s how life was supposed to be.

And in June of that year, I cracked a rib, and for six weeks or a month I couldn’t do anything except just get by. I couldn’t do any of my dopamine-producing activities, like swimming or running, anything. I think that started the real descent. And over the next few months I found myself thinking that nothing was important, nothing mattered. Everything seemed like I was outside of myself watching events happen, going through the motions. And I think that all-absorbing deep depression, you just don’t care, you don’t want to be around anybody, surrounded by walls you build up yourself, and it’s impossible to think of trying to break down the walls or climb over them. To me, suicidal depression is a feeling of complete isolation and alienation.

In those last few weeks before I shot myself, I tried to find things that I could do that would give me those feelings of mastery, because I had no feelings of competence within myself, and the only place, the only way I could have feelings of competence and feel life was worth living was by doing stuff, not by being. And the less I cared, the more alienated I felt, the more powerless I felt, the deeper I sank into the depression.

And finally, since I’ve been telling my story to the world, more than one person has asked me, “Did you think about your family?” And I don’t know what others would answer, but I did think about my family. There were guns in our house, but I would not try to kill myself with a gun in my family’s house. I just couldn’t bear the thought of them dealing with the aftermath. But eventually I remembered another gun at a lake house. I drove to it, about an hour away from home, and that’s where I shot myself.

I probably just told you a lot more than what you asked!

That’s fine, some people answer my first question with their entire story.

I read several of the interviews. And the one thing that strikes me that I think is different for me is that once the seed was planted, that I would go public with this story, I never looked back. I think it was when I finally dealt with the bulimia. That was when I started learning to tell the truth. And that was a long time ago. My attempt was 30 years ago, and 30 years is a long time! But I think at the point where I knew someday I would tell my story, a lot of things had to happen before that point. And writing this book, well, what pulled me out of the depression was the fact I had to learn to do absolutely everything all over again. Because while the bullet didn’t kill me, it did cause my blindness.
You think, “Suicidal depression, blindness on top of that, holy crap, how can it get any worse?” But really and truly, the fact that I had to start all over again and learn absolutely everything once I couldn’t see, that’s what pulled me out of the depression. It was a huge, huge struggle at first. I had two rehab professionals who worked with me. And the rehab teacher taught me skills for everyday living. The orientation and mobility instructor taught me how to use a long cane. The first rehab teaching lesson was learning braille. At the end of the first lesson, I was reading three-letter words in braille. I was like, “This is really cool!” But when she left, I was like, “This is really cool? You’re 26!” But something in me said, “Never mind, just feel the accomplishment.”
I just threw myself into the rehab program. And I had only been blind for a year and four months when I started grad school. My masters is in blind rehab, and that’s where I met my husband. Once I started moving forward again, each little step forward took me further away from feelings of worthlessness and loneliness and alienation and took me toward being a whole person again.
About five years ago or so, I wrote the story of my own rehab process. I had all kinds of motivations. I love to write, and having been on both sides of the desk of rehab as a client and a teacher, rehab is something I know very well. I sort of challenged myself to write it in such a way that it was humorous, you know, I wanted to accurately portray the techniques you use when you can’t see. I wanted to capture the progression over that first year after I became blind, capture the progression from basically having nothing, starting over, to the point where I could say, “OK, I’m ready to live life again, and I’m going to choose this profession of blind rehab.”
Anyway, I wrote that, but it wasn’t easy yet to write about my suicide attempt. I put it aside. Then a year and a half ago, someone I didn’t know, who lived in England, committed suicide. And I do know a lot of people who knew her, and the people who knew my story started coming to me and saying, “What could we have done? Did I miss something? The tone of an e-mail, a tweet, a Facebook post?” It was at that point I decided I was ready to write about the whole thing.
What I’m trying to do, I think, is be demystify this whole suicidal depression and suicide attempt. And by “demystify,” I mean try to put it out there as clearly as I can what it feels like. And then what it takes to get back on your feet. And I am gonna publish this book, but even if I don’t publish a single word, writing this book has been one of the best things I’ve ever done. It really has. It’s been incredible.
In terms of … ?

People keep saying, “Oh, it must have been so cathartic,” but that’s not the strongest emotion I have around the writing of this book. The strongest emotion I have is that yeah, I’ve been through a lot of adversity, but right now, right here, I’m living my life with joy and free of guilt. And every single day I can’t wait to see what the day holds. Of course, you know, at one time I never wanted to get out of bed again. And it is possible to look back, nod my head at that suicidal depression and say, “Yup, I was there, but look where I am now.”

Has it come back at all?
Yes. On two occasions. One occasion was what brought me to the point of admitting that I had an eating disorder and seeking treatment. And the other time was around an addiction to prescription narcotics. In the first case, with bulimia, I sort of had to get dragged kicking and screaming into rehab. But with narcotics, I was much more willing. I recognized that the best way to deal with a problem of substance abuse is to get treatment and to enter into it fully, no holding anything back. And that treatment was phenomenal. I spent three weeks at the Brattleboro Retreat, just incredible.
Both happened since your attempt?
Yes.
What were your friends’ responses to your book?
Probably the most notable was a friend, someone who knew the woman in England who, I think because of my openness with him, he took the initiative and went to this person’s family and said, “Can you tell me anything else?” That apparently led to a resolution for him. There really wasn’t anything he could have done. In hindsight, you can read just about anything into anything, and I think sometimes just to have the light of day shine on words or actions and put them into perspective, you can say, “No, I don’t think that my friend ever communicated to me anything that would have enabled me to change what happened.”
And you know, having grown up in polite society in the South, where even to this day there are people who refer to the Civil War as the “late unpleasantness,” there are just things not talked about in polite society. And it seemed only after I finished the book … once I made my mind up to write this book, it was gonna get done. I never entertained not finishing it. And once it was finished, and once I started telling people, I had a number of advance readers in this area, and people who’ve known me all my life, that’s when I started thinking, “Oh my, you’re not supposed to talk about this!” But I think it’s essential. You’ve got to be able to look negativity in the face. I don’t know about suicide rates in different parts of the country, but if you can’t talk about it, you can’t stop it.
What was your family’s response?
My parents are both deceased. My brother started talking about it, he said, “I don’t know if I can read this book.” And I understood. There’s, you know, he lived through it, it has to be painful for him. But I sent him the bound manuscript anyway. And I think in the first day he got through the first four chapters, which are the story of the suicide attempt, realizing that I was gonna be blind and coming home from the hospital. He immediately sent me a text and said, “I’ve read the first four chapters. It was difficult for me to read them, but it had to be brutal for you to write them.” Even though he had such reluctance, for reasons that I understand, once he had the book in his hands he started reading. The response from friends has been phenomenal. My two best friends from childhood, one in Birmingham, one in Atlanta, both of them have just had very high praise, not just for the book but for the telling of the story.
And the polite society?
Yes. I’ve had no “How can you do this to your family, how dare you tell this?” I had none of that at all. I was really gratified at the responses.
You also do public speaking?
Yes. So far, one of the two largest groups was the northeast regional professional organization of blind rehab professionals. And at the end, they kept having to bring chairs to the room. At the end, people said things like, “Every single person in this profession needs to hear this story.” That was last November. Then, in January, I spoke at the southeast regional guide dog conference. And that was such an amazing experience. I got so emotional at the end of it. And I was a little chagrined that I got so choked up. But on the other hand, this is a story that, if I can ever tell this story without emotion, I will have to find another story to tell!
And then in July, I’m the luncheon speaker at an international consumer group for people with blindness and visual impairment. And then in December at an international mobility conference. Again, a blindness profession group.
And I hope that I can tell my story to … Well, I work for the Department of Veterans Affairs. The suicide rate of active duty members and vets is just horrifying to me. And the VA is doing so much to address the problem, but it’s such a tough thing to address. I really do hope that there’s something I can do to help the VA in those efforts. I don’t know what that would be, but I’m standing here ready.
I’ve started small. I recently spoke to a group, a support group of veterans dealing with all kinds of problems, depression, anger management, PTSD. I told them the story that I tell at the beginning of my book, when a man asked me to help him with his horse that had developed the habit of galloping out of control when jumping fences. And I told the story of the hunt and how I broke the horse of the habit, and I had those feelings again of mastery, of being really good at something. At the end of the hunt when I dismounted, when my feet hit the ground, it was like I was instantly back in that tiny world where nothing mattered. I wasn’t good at anything. The group really latched on to that, when my feet hit the ground. For the rest of that session, they related their own versions, their own experiences. And it was like “My feet hit the ground” became a metaphor for the group.
It’s interesting that your attempt is just part of the story.
Yes. The cool thing is, it’s just part of the story, not THE story. The same thing with blind rehab. It’s part of the story, not the big story. To me, the big story is that 30 years ago, I didn’t think life was worth living, and today I can’t wait to get out of bed and see what I can get into. So, yeah. It’s been easy for me to get into the blindness rehab professionals and blind consumers, that’s been easy for me to get into. Just because of my own blindness and being a professional in this field. I don’t know, even though I have had plenty of therapy, I certainly have worked with my share of mental health professionals, I don’t know who to approach, you know. or what organization to approach. And I think it’s probably because I’ve been dealing with blindness forever. But this being honest about having attempted suicide is a relatively new thing for me, and so I’m kind of learning the organizations, the people. And that’s one of the reasons I’m so excited when you offered this interview. Because really and truly, the blindness, rehab, the hiking, all the time and fun my husband and I have had, the national parks, all of it weaves the tapestry, goes into the weaving of the tapestry, but the tapestry as a whole is, “Look where I was and, boy, I sure like where I am!” If that makes any sense. But you hit the nail on the head.
The big question people have, going back to the question your friends asked, is how do we tell in advance that someone is suicidal?
I don’t know that I have any real answer to that question, apart from … Every once in a while, whether it’s a certain time each day, a certain day each week, slow down. And really be with family and friends. Life is so fast-paced. And we’re faced with all of those distractions, e-mail,  Twitter, conference calls. It’s the people in our lives who are the most precious. And I think all too often, I’ve certainly done it myself. I get to where I feel like, “Oh, I’ve got to answer that right now, got to finish this project!” My husband and I, whenever we get that mutual feeling, “Let’s just slow down and just be,” we go jump in the hot tub. I don’t know, we have the most incredible conversations in that situation. Or even just sitting in our rocking chairs on the front porch and listening to the stream at the bottom of the hill.
I think that family and friends, we just need to stay open, to stay aware and to stay observant. It’s such a “me” society, my documents, my computer. But take time to really look family and friends in the eye and think about what you see there. And then talk about what you see there. And just because I’m blind doesn’t mean I can’t pick up on the pain you might see in a loved one’s eyes. Because there are so many ways that unhappiness, that depression, get communicated. And take the time to observe, to ask, to feel. And trust. Trust your instincts. Think about what your family member or your friend is communicating. And I think sometimes what is not being communicated is just as important. I was a teacher for 20 years, and I’ve learned how to tease out what wasn’t being said. I don’t know if that makes any sense at all. But it’s something I feel very deeply.
Are there any terms or tone of voice that put you on alert?
Yeah. I think silence, a long silence. Not being interested in things they’ve always been interested in. A lethargy, not wanting to do or go places that have always been a source of satisfaction or beauty. And sometimes I think those changes can be gradual. In my case, they were pretty dramatic. In my case, I covered it up because life was supposed to be good, you know.
I don’t know what could have been said to me or done differently to have prevented me from shooting myself. But I do know when I came face to face with bulimia, I had promised my therapist I would talk to him before I did anything to harm myself. That promise is a really, really important promise for someone who is depressed to make. It doesn’t have to be made to a professional. Over the years, I have extracted that promise from three people. And they are all fine. And you’d think that talking someone back from the edge, from attempting suicide … Well, the first time I did it, I spent two hours on the phone talking about and getting the other person to tell me, just to talk about what had led to thoughts of suicide. And I mean, it was head to head, it was intense, it was one of the most difficult things I’ve ever done. And when I hung up the phone, I thought, “Are you crazy?”
To yourself or to them?
It’s such an enormous responsibility. But I knew I could do it. I kept my phone on at all times, had Skype open. And he’s fine, just wonderful. So if you see anything like not wanting to do things that used to be important, giving away treasured objects, lethargy, first get the person talking, maybe get them to a therapist, and get that promise.
Is there any concern that mentioning suicide might be taken as a suggestion?
I don’t think so. In fact, I think it could go the other way. If you say, “Are you feeling suicidal?” in some cases, it might be enough to, as they say in the South, snatch somebody bald-headed. In my experience, getting to that doesn’t happen instantly. If someone calls it out, names it, in some cases it might be enough to make them say, “Ew, you’re right! I need help!”
Is this advice any different when it comes to teenagers?
I don’t know, I haven’t been a teen in a very long time, and I don’t have children! I do think that teenagers are faced with problems and situations and hormones that adults are not faced with, and bullying is something very distressing to me. And certainly physical bullying is horrible, but it’s the subtle bullying that’s just as insidious and so horrible. As a teen, you’re not sure, you want to fit in the crowd, you know? So I don’t know. One of the very first groups I told my story to, we lived in Maine at the time, and it was right after I admitted about having been bulimic, and it was after I got treatment for that, when I started learning to tell the truth. The very first group I told my story to was a group at a high school. It was a very small group of students and a bunch of faculty. And the students were something like peer advisers. There had been a rash of suicides in teens on the coast of Maine, and this group of concerned young men and women came together and said, “Let’s try to do something.” I so admired their courage to step forward. And you could have heard a pin drop, these students were so eager to get some understanding and strategies for recognizing depression in their fellow students and trying to address it before it resulted in someone killing themselves. And I don’t know what schools are like these days, but something like that is a good thing to consider.
In terms of more openness about this experience, what would you like to see different?
The reactions I personally have had have been completely positive. Nobody has said, “Don’t talk about that.” And yet, on websites and blogs and places that talk about and are by and for people who have attempted suicide, there still seems to be a lot of fear of being honest. And that’s what I would like to see changed. I don’t think anybody should have to be afraid of repercussions from their employer. And I think that suicidal depression and attempts are a lot more common than maybe what statistics say because, as I’ve told my story over the years, I am stunned by the number of people who say, “I have attempted suicide” or have friends or family members who have attempted. And just my telling the truth has brought just the most amazing people into my life. I am sure so many more are out there, but how do we find each other if there’s so much stigma still attached?
What else would you like to share?
I think I probably said it all! But as soon as we hang up, I’ll think of something. You know, I guess the bottom line to me is, there’s always hope. No matter how horrible life seems, there’s always hope. But there’s only hope as long as you stay alive. And you have to stay alive. I don’t care if it’s minute to minute, hour to hour, day to day. Stay alive. Because that’s the only chance you have for things to get better. Reach out, stay alive and ask for help.
Why do we have to go to such a length to learn this lesson?
I don’t know. (Laughs.)
Who else are you?
I’m just an ordinary person. Just utterly ordinary. I really am. You know, I’ve faced some pretty major adversities. But you know, I love being married, my job, my dog, I love smelling the flowers. The thing is, had I not gone through what I’ve been through, I’m not sure I would wake up every morning with a smile on my face. I have absolutely no regrets about anything that I’ve done or been through because I’m just very comfortable in my skin, very happy just to live an ordinary life.