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.

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