Talking with Taryn Aiken

I came across Taryn Aiken in a news story about her and her public speaking partner, 16-year-old Tanner Kirk. Tanner is physically limited by an attempt of his own a few years ago, and in the past year he lost his brother to suicide. Taryn has been surprised by what some people have told him: “Because you talked about it, glorified it, maybe that’s why it happened.”

Both of them disagree. They are passionate volunteers for the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, and Taryn says she welcomes the uncomfortable conversation; “Otherwise, how to make it comfortable for others to come forward?” Over time, she became known as “the one who talks about suicide.”

As for the concern among some in the suicide prevention world that talking about being suicidal will somehow normalize it, Taryn is typically brisk: “It is a norm in that it happens every 13 minutes. To our loved ones. In our communities.”

Please introduce yourself.

My name is Taryn Aiken. I’m 37-year-old single mother, with an 18-year-old son, Colin, and a daughter, Caitlin, 12, who will be 13 next month. I live in Utah, grew up here, born and raised. I got into what I currently do with AFSP kind of for a couple of reasons. I found them after my own father died by suicide. I found myself really lost, trying to cope online, and of course I Googled, because that’s what we do. And back then, when you Googled “suicide” it brought up resource information, while now it’s a bit scarier. But this was 11 years ago.

The first resource mentioned was AFSP, so I jumped in and looked through the website. I learned a lot of risk factors and warning signs that we could have looked for, and that drew me in because I identified with a lot of them, not only with my dad, but with my own life. When he died, it was his third attempt. So we knew there were struggles. I remember when I found him, I found it almost to be a bittersweet moment. As a teen, I had struggled with depression and sex abuse and had attempted many times as a young girl, and my dad found me after pretty serious attempts. So it was hard but also comforting, and I was grateful it was me who found him. Not the police, not my siblings. I knew it was something where I had experience, so I was better equipped to handle it than maybe they had been.

And how did you get to the point of being so involved with AFSP?

The website talked a lot about prevention, signs to look for, where you could get help. Also, it focused a lot on survivors, people who lost a loved one, not necessarily someone who had survived an attempt. I had felt very alone, isolated in grief. There was a lot of stigma. My dad’s own family didn’t want to admit how he died. So for me to find a group to talk about it was helpful. Then I wanted to get involved, to help families not to have to go through it at all. How to help loved ones. They always say hindsight’s 20-20. And my dad had made threats, comments. Maybe if we had looked harder … Maybe not.

I became impassioned to become a part of it. I found out they had local chapters across the U.S., run by volunteers, that did fundraising. The chapters distributed resources, provided info at the local level. I started doing fundraisers. Then, part of the charter to become a chapter is to do an Out of the Darkness walk, so I got involved in creating that. We held the first one in Utah in 2007. And from there, this will be our sixth year this year that we’ve done the walk. Just to see the growth in our state is tremendous. It’s gone from no one talking about suicide to last year’s walk having 1,500 walkers who raised $60,000. A lot more are talking about it now, families, those who’ve survived it. It’s an awesome organization to be a part of. I hope one day it can be my job. I still work, do volunteering, but it would be nice to have some way to have suicide prevention be my job.

I started college this year to get a social work degree, just to be able to work with kids, teens. To help.

Do you have a dream of what you’d like to do?

I think just now, just working at the school level. Kids, in my opinion, they’re not being taught coping skills, how to deal when it gets hard. There are a lot of reasons why people complete. There are life’s stressors, but mental illness is still an underlying factor. I think we see so much teen suicide because they’re unable to cope. They’re so inundated with technology that they spend all their time there, with no human interaction. So I see a need in my own state for more mental health wellness in the school system. We have PE, but we need a focus on mental health as well. In our school system, there’s only one social worker in the entire district. Well, one person can’t take care of 80,000 kids. So there’s a need for that.

Definitely, I enjoy AFSP’s role in getting out to schools. Tanner comes with me and shares his story, how he survives, his desire to keep going. And watching the way kids react to him is so powerful. It makes them think differently about suicide. What if you attempt and don’t succeed? He can’t speak on his own, walk on his own. He thought he was ending it all, and now he has a different life. Now he’s focused on what he can do to save others.

Talk a little about his story.

At age 13, he hung himself. He doesn’t remember a good month before, or a few weeks after, because of his injuries. He was found by his brother and life-flighted to the hospital. He came out of a coma after weeks. He has complete normal brain function, but his muscles are very tight, and that’s what prevents him from talking and walking. He spends hours a day in physical therapy. He doesn’t remember what his attempt was over. Apparently, he and his mom got in a fight over missing zit cream. Maybe that set him off, we don’t know. We know kids don’t have the logic. I remember at that age, my parents divorced, and I didn’t see any way past that, to get better. Maybe he had a history of mental illness in his family. He had lost family members to suicide.

I met him through the support group, Heart and Soul, and when I was inquiring who could speak at one of our walks, he was brought to my attention. He spoke, and I just fell in love with him. I just think it’s inspiring. I really enjoyed getting to know him. Then, unfortunately, in February his youngest brother hung himself and did not survive. It was devastating for all of them. But here again is a family with a history of suicide. It can still happen even though you’re aware and educated.

How did both of you respond?

In the beginning, it was just hard. Speaking for myself, I wondered, “Did we make this happen because we’re talking about it so much?” I don’t know if Tanner was thinking the same thing. I know he has had people say, “Because you talked about it, glorified it, maybe that’s why it happened.” I can’t spend my time, energy on that. We’re still going to talk about it, inform the public, educate. If not, we’re going to lose people with this illness. I know in the beginning, Tanner entertained thoughts of stopping, but then it ignited again his passion.

How long did it take to start speaking publicly again?

We’ve done several speaking engagements in the last few months. He needed a couple of months to grieve, of course. They miss him every day. They honor him, Ethan, share his story too. Nobody understood, maybe, how the world was for Ethan because they didn’t live in his shoes. The bullying of kids at that age. I’m sure there were a lot of factors. But it’s been awesome to see Tanner continue to share. His family has experienced this so many times, I know it is a passion for them.

You mentioned this is volunteer work. How much time do you put into this?

I spend hours a day doing this, organizing different events. I’ve done speaking engagements once a week, regularly. It’s something we spend a lot of time on. I’d love to see this as something Tanner does as his job, and be compensated. I’d love to see something come out of this to sustain him for his life, provide income for himself. I think his story is one that needs to be shared. We’ll also do volunteering as long as we have to. It’s important to him, and that’s how I feel. It’s the only thing that eases the pain of losing my dad.

How old is Tanner?

16.

How do you keep yourself healthy and protected?

Believe me, it’s a huge issue. I’m a recovering addict as well. I’ve had bouts where I get back into using. You take on a lot of people’s energy because they want to talk about the experience. And I’m not a therapist, but that’s part of the reason why I decided to go to school, to learn to separate those things. I still see a therapist myself, and I’m in a program of recovery, and tomorrow I celebrate for the first time being sober for 60 days, in a long time.

How did you decide to speak publicly?

I was tired of the show. I came out very early on and talked about my dad. I think he died because he couldn’t be vocal, he worried about what others might say. I thought, “To hell with that. This is the truth. This is what happened.” He did not have to be defined by suicide. He lived for 50 years. Because that’s how he chose to end it, that’s how we define his life?

A lot of us need to come to ownership of our lives. We do things that are not always right, that get us in trouble, but being quiet about those things keeps us stuck in that shame. Being able to say, “I’ve done this, I’ve done that,” frees us to move on from it. I want the uncomfortable conversation. I think the more that the brave of us say it, the more others will reach out instead of hide and be afraid of what people might think. I’m loud and proud. Otherwise, how to make it comfortable for others to come forward?

How did you start?

I think mostly at our walks. My name started to get out there in the media: “Oh, you’re the one who talks about suicide.” Our chapter was very instrumental in getting legislation requiring teachers to have two hours of suicide prevention training. It was an online video that AFSP produced called “More Than Sad.” But they had to fulfill another hour of training. We were listed as a resource for that other hour, so we had schools reaching out to me. We shared statistics, partnered with local health departments, to get stats and let them know what was going on locally. So that’s how it kind of started.

How have responses changed over the years?

It’s been huge. You kind of can tell the teachers who are excited to learn and the others who say, “I don’t need to worry about that.” I think if they’ve experienced it, they understand the importance of it. It’s heartbreaking that it takes a life lost. At the same time, conversations have been started. There’s still the stigma, the shame, the crap you deal with with ignorant people. But I feel our community’s more open to it than ever before.

How to make it easier to discuss this topic? I don’t mean speeches, but among ourselves?

Look at the ’60s, when sex wasn’t talked about. The more the conversation happens, the more comfortable it is. I think, too, the more we have understanding and compassion about people with mental illness, the same thing will happen. The same changing of mindset from, “Oh, they’re crazy.” No, my mind can get sick the way my lungs can get sick. It’s not, “Oh, you did it to yourself.” Addiction, eating disorders, these are forms of mental illness. So many factors play into it. The more the conversation happens, the more normal it become, not a taboo topic.

Some people in the suicide prevention world worry that attempt survivors speaking publicly will somehow “normalize” it. What do you think?

I can appreciate where they’re coming from, but it’s happening. So if you ignore it, you only perpetuate it. It needs to be addressed. It is a norm in that it happens every 13 minutes. To our loved ones. In our communities.

What do you think about media portrayals?

I think the media has a responsibility, like anything else, a responsibility in reporting of things. The news station here had an awesome 45-minute, commercial-free special on suicide, talking to parents, teens, kids, adults. It’s so hidden that people don’t know its going on around them. See KSL 5, “Breaking the Silence.” It was just awesome. We didn’t spearhead it. They came to us. They took it upon themselves.

What should change in the mental health system?

We need more access to good mental health care. People are going to family doctors for mental health. Not that they’re not great, but they’re great for a cold. They give recommendations based on what drug reps say.

And coverage for mental health care. A lot of people don’t have insurance or mental health coverage. Access to care is huge. Unfortunately, most people who experience suicidal thoughts get turned away if they don’t have coverage. Unless you go in actively threatening, you are told, “Nope, we can’t take you.” Access needs to be improved. I tell people all the time to straight-up lie, tell the ER you have a plan. At least if we can get them somewhere safe. A lot of mental health facilities here do a 24-hour assessment. For most people who are actively suicidal, if you can get them past that moment, you have a chance.

What would you do if your own feelings came back?

I would know what to do, where to go. I would know it’s a moment and can get past it. I also know that like any other illness, I have to take an active role. I can’t expect things to get better by themselves. I need to become educated, be willing to do the treatment. Unfortunately, until they come up with tests, “OK, this is what you need to treat this,” it is a lot of trial and error, and it can be frustrating to people. They have to try several options before finding what works for them. It’s just exercising that patience and being willing to fight.

I get lots of requests from family and friends of attempt survivors about what they should do and say. Any advice?

I think the best resource is to get in touch with NAMI. It has support groups for families. Like Al-anon, they have help for families of people who have the disease. They don’t always have the right answers, but they can refer to people who do. That’s why I love the Lifeline; 24/7, I can call and talk through it. Even that 5-minute window of “I want to be done, end my life,” you can reach out to someone. You don’t know the power it can have.

You briefly mentioned your experiences. Are you comfortable talking about them?

My very first attempt was when I was 12. And I ODed and was found by my father. And I know 100 percent why. I had been sexually abused as a kid by my parents’ friend. When I came forth and told my family, I was told to forget about it, forget it ever happened. Well, you try forgetting. I was taught at an early age that I don’t have a voice, that when bad things happen I didn’t matter. No one cared enough to stop it.

And so then when my parents decided to divorce, I thought, “This is awful, I don’t want to go on.” I was stuck living with someone I didn’t want to live with. My dad was leaving. How to function? I just didn’t see any hope. That was my first attempt. It landed me in a hospital for three weeks, where I was able to process and explain and talk about sexual abuse and have people who did listen. But over the course of my life, I was raped again as a 15-year-old, and it put me right back into that same thinking. No one wanted to hear about it. I’m victimized, abused, no one gives a shit. So I attempted at 15.

I was a cutter a lot of my life. It wasn’t about attempting. People would see the marks: “Oh, you’re trying to kill yourself. No it was about getting out the pain. No one listened to me talk, so maybe if they see it … After that, I started seeing a counselor, and it’s a counselor I see to this day. You know what, my family will not always have my back, but there are others I can go to, that I do have a voice. And sometimes it won’t always be the people who are supposed to love me. And that’s what saved me. Having that support, even though they’re not the people I wanted it to be. People still cared. (Crying.) I’m sorry, I don’t know where that came from.

Who else are you?

I think the thing people should know is that everything in my life, everything I went through, you know … I am what I choose to become, not what happened to me. I get to have that final say, to have that final power. I’ve let so many people have power over me. I can choose at any moment what I let those things be. And I chose to be someone who looks on the bright side, who looks for hope for others. I spent plenty of time doing the bad. I can choose what I create in that next moment, even when it’s shitty.

And what else is part of your identity?

My identity is this. It’s what I do, how I spend my time. I love to spend time outside. My gosh, if I could be paid to be a Hawaiian Tropic swim model, I would love it. I need that vitamin D. I’m one who enjoys being out in nature. I just want to help people. It’s where I’m at. It’s what I do.

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