Talking with Jay Johnston

Jay Johnston came to my attention when he recently graduated from law school and was featured on his local news. He’s come far from his days in high school, when his depression deepened and he kept thoughts of suicide secret so no one would think he was being dramatic. Now he talks openly about his attempt and encourages others to reach out before they risk going as far as he did.

“It’s probably the only disease _ and it is a disease _ where the more someone is suffering from it, the less likely they are to seek help,” he says of suicidal thinking. “Do you agree with that?”

Here, Jay talks about his mother’s reaction, what he tells curious children and why an “overly needy” dog has turned out to be an ideal companion.

Tell us about yourself.

The first impression people get when meeting me would be my disfigurement, but that’s probably not the information you were looking for. I’m 34. I live in Portland, Oregon. I’m an Oregon native. I grew up on the coast and moved to Portland in high school. I love this town and have been here ever since. I live downtown with my basset hound Hugo the Wonderdog.

Talk about your experience.

I suffered from depression all of my childhood. I didn’t know it. That was just normal for me. The depression became acute in high school. My depression was like putting on dark sunglasses. It made bright things look dark and dark things look hopeless. I told my mom when I was 17 that I had been thinking about killing myself. Unlike me, she knew that wasn’t normal and took me immediately to the family doctor. This was the ’90s, and Prozac had just come out, and there was a lot of hubbub about the drug. The doctor put me on anti-depressants, but a very low dose. I wasn’t advised to get counseling along with the anti-depressants. If that small dosage helped, it didn’t help much. Eventually, my prescription ran out and I had a hard time getting a refill. It took weeks or months. I don’t want to give the drugs a bad name, saying they don’t work. Maybe a different dosage or counseling would have effectively treated my depression. These two certainly have been effective as an adult.

In the months before my attempt, as my misery became unbearable, I spent a lot of time trying to decide if I would be better off dead and if the people around me would be better off or even affected if I died. I began testing, something like luck or fate, to see if my pain could be extinguished. I did things like driving around sharp corners at twice the speed limit. If I died, then my pain was over. If the car stuck to the road, then I would live another day.

I was also testing myself, trying to determine if I could really go through with suicide. I did this with a shotgun I had bought for sporting purposes. I had no thoughts of suicide when I bought the gun. I would unload the gun and put pressure on the trigger while the barrel was to my head. As I did this, I asked myself if I could squeeze the trigger if the gun were loaded.

I kept all this to myself. I didn’t want to seem dramatic or be perceived as someone seeking attention. I didn’t even tell the people closest to me for this reason and because I was almost certain that they wouldn’t care.

A couple of weeks before my high school graduation, things came to a head. My car broke down, I was fighting with my mom, a girl I had been seeing was showing interest in a friend of mine, my grades were horrible, and it was iffy that I could graduate. I was in absolute misery. I paged my best friend. I didn’t want to reveal anything to him. I just wanted to get out of the house and spend time with him to get my mind off things. I paged him for hours and never heard back. That was as good a sign as any that absolutely no one cared whether I were dead or alive. I wrote goodbye letters to a few friends. They were sort of half apologies. I wrote that “This probably won’t affect you, but just in case, I’m sorry. You’ll
get over it soon, but life is too painful for me.” I didn’t write a letter to my mom, even though she was the closest person in my life. My depression had my perspective so bent that I didn’t think she would care if I died, so there was no reason to write her an apology.

I loaded the shotgun and put it to my head. I bawled my eyes out because I couldn’t find what I thought of as courage to pull the trigger. I was in excruciating pain and angry at myself for not having enough “bravery” to end my pain. In the movies, people put guns to their forehead or temple. I wanted to be sure that I was dead. I didn’t want to accidentally shoot out my eyes and then live on as a blind person, so I put the barrel under my chin. This would ensure that the blast did the job.

I don’t remember pulling the trigger. The last thing I remember is lying on my bed on my side with the shotgun cradled under my chin. I might have pulled the trigger, I might have cried myself to sleep and rolled over on the gun, I don’t know.

My friend eventually returned my calls. It turned out he had been on the highway between Portland and the coast, and he had to wait to get home to call me. This was pre-cell phone days. My mom answered the phone and brought it to my bedroom. She had been in the house when I shot myself but somehow didn’t hear the shot. She found the mess and saw that I had got off the bed and crawled to the door. The shotgun tore off the front of my face but missed my brain. I lost my jaw, part of my tongue, nearly all of my teeth, both my cheeks, my nose, one eye and most of my forehead. Despite my deliberate planning to avoid survival with lost vision, that is exactly what happened.

Then what? How did you even begin to come back from that?

“Waking up” in the hospital was a gradual process. I had to be told several times over several days where I was and why I was in the hospital. I don’t remember much, but I do know that I was communicating by writing on a clipboard. I was blind in my remaining eye and unable to speak without a mouth. One of my most vivid memories is the staunch denial that I had pulled the trigger. I insisted that I had eventually changed my mind and the gun must have gone off accidentally.

The intense and interrupted physical pain is indescribable. Perhaps even more painful was the slow realization that I was now severely mangled and had no sight. Even months later, after I regained some of my vision, I was still feeling very sorry for myself for being blind. I don’t know when my depression started lifting. Perhaps it was when I was able to regain my mobility and some independence. I was still “eating” through a tube in my stomach, but my renewed physical strength allowed me to get around, and I was undergoing blind training. I was getting a more appropriate dose of anti-depressants than when I was in high school, and I was getting counseling. Perhaps most beneficial was my new dog. My neighbors gave me their overly needy basset hound, and he turned out to be an ideal companion.

How long did the blind training last, and what did you do when the training was over?

Life at this point was interspersed with extended stays in the hospital for reconstructive surgeries. After a few years of this, I enrolled at a local college, where I took additional breaks for more surgeries. This extended my college experience, but I got through it and graduated in 2008. I had been living the life I feared, disfigured and visually impaired; however, I was much happier than in my teens. I took a year off from school and enrolled in law school here in Portland, which I wrapped up this summer.

You say you were much happier. How is that?

Anti-depressants and counseling is what has made the difference for me. It took me years to realize that normal people feel good when good things happen and bad when bad things happen. Before my depression was treated, I actually disallowed myself to be happy over good things. There were so many bad things that I shouldn’t and wouldn’t enjoy the few good ones.

Did it help having a clear goal, knowing exactly what you needed to do to help yourself?

It was the reverse. Before my depression was treated, I had no hope of achieving anything, so goals were useless. That’s why I was doing so poor in school. I had no drive whatsoever. Once I was in a healthier position, I was able to have enough confidence to make goals and work toward them.

Where do you go from this point? What would you like to do?

It’s a hard question to answer. And you’re not alone. Everyone wants to know: “You’ve graduated law school, what now?” My future’s uncertain at this point. I haven’t taken the bar exam yet. There’s a lot of directions I could go. I’ll just keep moving forward; it’s how I made it this far.

How has your mom responded through all of this?

My depression and injury have probably been more painful to my mom than me. She had seen me suffer through depression, then she had to watch me suffer through the significant physical challenges after my injury. She’s been a ton of help to me and given me endless support. It’s cost her a lot of energy and pain. Have you written about the notion of the selfishness of suicide?

A little. People mention it as a misconception, that this is done out of selfishness, but no one has said they’ve been accused of it. You?

Sometimes friends have mentioned it. Not an accusation—more of a perspective. I certainly see where they’re coming from. For example, my suicide attempt is in my past, but the pain to my mom is still in the present. But what many people don’t understand is the perspective of suicide attempters. Their perception is so altered from their depression that they don’t see their actions as impacting anyone. Someone who understands that there are people who love them and would be hurt by their suicide probably aren’t suffering from the severe depression that would drive them to suicide.

At what point does thinking turn suicidal? At what point was it for you?

I don’t know what flips the switch or if there is one. My understanding is that a person
is definitely in a suicidal mindset and in imminent danger if they have planned a method of killing themselves. This is one of the questions to ask someone if you fear that they are suicidal. For me, the turning point was probably a gradual transition. When I was firmly in a suicidal mindset it was the result of pain, perceived isolation, and hopelessness.

I couldn’t state it succinctly, but my understanding is that there’s two types of depression, situational and biochemical _ whatever the brain type is called. Situational, meaning you’ve been diagnosed with cancer and your spouse left you and you’re bankrupt all at once. In other words, you’re fundamentally healthy, but the circumstances make you miserable. The biochemical kind is related to serotonin, if I understand correctly. The person is miserable regardless of their circumstances. That’s what I had.

What ultimately drove me to attempt suicide was that underlying chemical or biological or whatever depression, and then adding on to that the situational factors, which in retrospect were minor, silly things. I mean, who doesn’t get in a fight with their parents? And bad grades aren’t the end of the world. They didn’t end up being a hindrance to me as an adult, but someone suffering from depression doesn’t have the benefit of the healthy perspective to see what is good or bad or what’s minor or what’s hopeless.

Maybe it’s getting easier to talk to others about being depressed, but I’m not so sure it’s the same when a person is suicidal.

That may be true. A number of people have revealed to me their current depression and/or a prior suicide attempt, but I can’t recall anyone confiding in me their current suicidality. The worst part about depression and suicidality, probably worse than its prevalence, is that it’s treatable but the people who need to be treated most feel the most helpless and are the least motivated to get help: “No one understands my unique position. I know you think it’s no big deal. I’m not going to seek the help because no one can help me.” It’s probably the only disease _ and it is a disease _ where the more someone is suffering from it, the less likely they are to seek help. Do you agree with that? I think now I’m different,
but it’s because I’ve already learned that my depression can be treated. Before my injury, I wouldn’t have believed that my perspective was different from anyone else or that I could be helped to feel better.

Would it help if more people came forward to talk openly about their attempts? To give others that perspective?

Certainly awareness is important. However, I think someone speaking out should be deliberate in how they do it, so as not to make other people uncomfortable. This isn’t like commenting on the weather. But certainly it’s important to increase awareness about the problem and that it’s treatable.

You’ve probably heard people say this. They’ll say that they “admit” to going to counseling, as if it’s an admission of something bad. I wonder where that came from, that embarrassment for getting counseling. It’s a curious thing because no one would be embarrassed for going to a medical doctor, unless it’s something like an STD. If you have a broken bone or some kind of heart condition, you wouldn’t whisper it or say it only in confidence.

When I was a teenager, I wasn’t embarrassed for being severely depressed. I wouldn’t have wanted to bring it up with friends at lunch, but the high school social scene is unique. If a doctor asked me, I would have told him the truth. That’s something that I was told when I’ve done things like suicide intervention training. I was told never to be afraid to ask if someone’s considering suicide, because you won’t plant that seed in a healthy mind, but at the same time, someone considering suicide would be relieved that someone cared enough to ask. Have you heard that?

Yes.

I’ve been in a situation with a friend whom I asked if they were thinking of killing themselves. It’s a big question to ask.

You asked it? How did it go?

Fortunately, I got the “Of course not,” but I also got the “I appreciate you asking.” Have you heard of the yellow ribbon program?

I’ve heard it mentioned but don’t know what it is.

They have a neat thing, these business cards with yellow ribbons on them. Basically it says on it, “I’m thinking about suicide, and I need help,” that’s the essence of the message. So you can give someone the card without explaining. Because some people probably can’t verbalize their situation. You could give it to a teacher, so as to not make a scene, or give it to your parents because you’re so scared that you couldn’t put it into words but could hand over this card. It’s a neat thing. I keep some here at the house.

You have them to distribute, or to hand out for yourself?

I ordered them for a school presentation so the teacher could have them sitting on his desk. So if someone wanted one, they could take one on the sly. But no, I don’t keep them for my own use. I am fortunate enough to have professional resources like a doctor and counselor. I could just go to them and say, “Hey I think my meds need readjusted” or “I need to talk about this.” The cards are especially for someone school-age, for example, and doesn’t know what to do.

I assume that people have asked you for advice, and I wonder if you’re of the same mind. I tell people, if you’re not making progress with a counselor, psychiatrist or whatever, get a different one. Because they’re all unique, and a therapist perfect for one person might not be right for another. And if the next one is not a good fit, try again. If that therapist doesn’t work, then stick with him or her because it’s probably the therapy, not the therapist that makes you uncomfortable. Talking about and examining emotions can put you outside your comfort zone. Maybe it’s like taking medicine: It might taste bad, but it’s worth it if you’ll be healthier.

I agree. But affording it, and finding a therapist who works with suicidal people …

In Oregon, if you’re indigent, you get on Medicaid or its equivalent. I can’t remember what the program’s called, but you can be homeless and get it, and there are county-sponsored clinics where you go and get assigned a counselor. I know when I was a young adult I couldn’t afford insurance and was in the program. I think it was like a $20 co-pay that the county-sponsored clinic charged, and the state picked up the charge. Whatever it was, it was totally free. She was as good a counselor as I’ve ever had, and she only had an MSW _ a master’s degree. The worst therapists I had were psychiatrists, MDs. Their training was to fix the problem by adjusting medication. There’s a place for that, meds made a
huge difference for me, but it doesn’t replace counseling. What I’m saying is don’t shop for the fanciest degree when choosing a therapist.

What kinds of questions do you get, including from strangers?

Sometimes people will ask, “What happened to your face?” Others will say, “Oh! I just noticed you have a prosthetic nose, what happened?” Most often, probably, it’s kids, and then their parents yell at them for asking. The kid thing, that’s tough, because what do you tell an 8-year-old? If there’s no parent there, I would say I had an accident. I’ll tell an adult; I don’t mind. For me, my injury is something of the past, and my treated depression is not an issue because it’s treated. So I’m not shy or embarrassed. Being disfigured is tough, you know, emotionally tough. It would be awfully nice to look normal, but it’s one of those things you can’t control.

Do you do public speaking?

I’ve done presentations at schools, and I’ve been on a few panels, but I’m not a motivational speaker. I don’t book myself into hotel banquet rooms, anything like that.

What have you not mentioned that you’d like to?

The only other thing off the top of my head is the message to not keep it a secret if someone tells you. If someone tells you in confidence they’re considering suicide, don’t keep it secret. It’s better to break confidence than have that person languish with depression or kill themselves.

Another thing, I think therapists and auto mechanics are similar enough to compare. You take your car to the mechanic when something is wrong, but you also do it for maintenance. Going to a counselor can improve a person’s quality of life even when there isn’t a crisis. Don’t think of it as resorting to therapy.

Finally, since this experience is in the past and isn’t the only thing that defines you, who else are you?

I love to read novels. My hobbies are woodworking and vintage radio collecting. I’m a dog owner. I’m an uncle. That probably covers the main demographics.

I’m impressed by the high number of dog owners I speak with here. It’s never cats.

Dogs are mysterious. They’re uniquely intuitive. When I lost an aunt, I was just lying in bed absolutely miserable, and the dog crawled up on the bed. He’ll usually sleep on the bed with me, but this time he wedged himself next to me for as much bodily contact as possible, as if he knew I needed the endorphins. He’s done the same thing when I’ve been sick. Dogs are just endless sources of love, always happy to see you. They’re never in a bad mood or selfish. They’re just happy to get and return your affection.

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One thought on “Talking with Jay Johnston

  1. cats can be enormously beneficial. i’ve never had a cat who wasn’t an excellent nurse and companion when i’ve been in need. dogs force people to get out of the house, to walk and have a change of scenery, but for those who are not dog people or who live where dogs are not allowed a cat can be a really good bet. i think cats have saved my life many times. besides, dogs don’t purr.

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